Sunday, October 2, 2016

1st 5 Pages October Workshop - Bynum

Name: Karen Y. Bynum
Genre: Young Adult (high fantasy)

When elves die by sword or sorrow,
Owls make certain they see tomorrow.
Their souls are planted and reborn.
With pasts erased, they do not mourn.
But compassion fades and hearts harden
As rumors take root and poison the Garden.

Chapter 1

Earthworms of anxiety knotted in Madelece’s belly. How was she going to ask her mother permission to do the sleep study? She took a deep breath, got out of her canoe, and pulled it onto the sand. She scanned the plain oak canoes anchored to the shore by Luck, until she spotted her mother’s, smooth and tan with the faint black stripes of orca wood.

She turned back to her canoe. “Madelece says, Stay.” Her voice was strong and sure. She reached down and gave the boat a small test push, and it scooted back into the water. Jinx! Thank the Owls no one was around to see her failure. She quickly grabbed the edge before it floated away. Her maple tea was in there—and she would need every drop of sugary goodness to get her through this—along with the cloak her papa had made for her.

Father, she reminded herself. Not Papa. Mother liked her to call him Father.

She lived with her mother, except for the summer solstice. During the time apart from her father, they exchanged weekly scrolls by pigeon. Still, it wasn’t the same. Not seeing him every day was always hard, but even harder after weeks of Papa-time.

After she found the in-case-of-no-Luck rope she kept hidden under the seat, she tied it to a nearby tree, securing her canoe. She shivered and let down her thick, copper-colored hair so it fell over her shoulders—it was cooler in the Valley than where her papa lived at the Beach, but she wouldn’t wear her cloak. Not now. Not around her mother.

Madelece gathered her satchel and took a long drink of her maple tea. Okay. She could do this. She pushed a low branch out of her way, and it swatted her bare legs as she passed.

The path snaked through the woods. Early morning sunlight dusted the forest floor. Familiar raven ca-caws echoed around her, and rabbits scurried into their burrows as she walked by. Despite this, and the closeness of hundreds of trees, the woods felt empty.

Eventually, the trees began to thin out when she neared the clearing. At the edge of the open field were three giant pine trees. The one in the middle was perfect for climbing because of its evenly spaced branches, but the one on the end was perfect for hiding things.

After a quick glance around, she ducked under the foliage. She pulled open the drawstrings of her satchel, got out the cloak, and hung it over the highest branch she could reach.

When she stepped out of the forest, she practically walked into a wall of flowery perfume. The too-sweet smell of roses stuck to the inside of her nose, like snot she couldn’t sneeze out.

To her right was the pumpkin patch full of orange, Luckfull pumpkins. From here, she couldn’t tell if there were any silver ones, but there were almost always Luckless hatchlings. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be many this Harvest. The afterlife wasn’t exactly easy on the Luckless, and even harder on the Forgotten. But, they wouldn’t know if there were any Forgotten until the hatchlings were ready for Delivery. Then, the Storks would either deliver them, or not.

On the other hand, she’d find out how many Luckless pumpkins there were either later today or tomorrow when the Harvest began. She’d taken part in the Harvest since she was five, so this would be her seventh year.

Directly in front of her stood Mother’s small stone cottage, surrounded by blue rose bushes. One of the few frivolous things Delora had used her Luck to splurge on.

The earthworms in her belly tightened as she gripped her satchel and walked around the side of the cottage to the front door. In the distance, golden rays peeked over the mountain top. The dirt road in front of the cottage was busy with villagers going into town, and gardeners heading to the Garden.

Madelece wanted to slip inside unnoticed and have another cup of maple tea before beginning the day. It’d been an early start this morning, leaving Father’s house and then fighting the can-never-make-up-its-mind-which-way-to-flow river.

She raced up the stairs and reached for the door, just as it swung open. Jinx. Mother’s booming voice made her jump, and the last sip of her maple tea sloshed out of her travel mug.

“Ma-da-lease!” she called. “Sweet girl. You’ve returned!” The tall woman pulled Madelece into her bony embrace. “How are you, my love? Did you have a smooth journey? From your last pigeon, I expected you home later this evening.” She continued without actually pausing long enough for a reply.

Madelece’s cheeks grew warmer as she caught glimpses of villagers gawking at the reunion. Great. Just what she wanted.

Mother finally loosened her hold and took in the sight of her daughter. Madelece fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. It wasn’t quite as loose as it had been a month ago. “My goodness, dear girl, your father certainly fed you well.” Delora released Madelece completely and smiled sweetly to someone on the road. She waved. “Good morning, Otto.”

“Good morning, Mistress Gardener,” he replied.

“My daughter has returned! I’ve missed her so. I may be in late this morning.”

Her mother always made it sound like Madelece had run away from home. She started to say she was fine and for Mother to go to work whenever she needed, but Otto replied with, “Take your time. Offspring are a blessing from the Owls.”

“That they are.” Her mother turned back to Madelece and herded her toward the door. “I’m sure you’re starving, Maddy.” Once inside, she gestured toward the kitchen. “Delora says, Prepare a breakfast feast,” she announced as they walked into the den.

It was a cozy room with a fireplace, a bookcase built into the back wall between two windows, a small couch, and two fluffy chairs. Everything neatly in its spot. Immaculate. Just like her mother. They passed through an archway into the kitchen and sunroom where pots and pans clanked out of the cupboards and eggs floated from the icebox, along with boar slices.

“That’s all right, Mother. We can just go to the Gar—”

“Nonsense, dear girl. You need to eat. I wouldn’t want your father telling people I don’t feed you.” She smiled and smoothed an invisible wrinkle from her apron before taking Madelece’s satchel and unloading each item onto the oversized dining table. It barely fit in the sunroom, but after Madelece’s parents parted ways, Delora had insisted on keeping it. Didn’t make sense to Madelece—the table had been in Crale’s family for centuries—but she liked having something of her papa’s close by.

“I’ll wash and press your clothes later. I don’t have the time right now.”

Madelece had hoped her mother would notice how wrinkle-free and orderly they were—arranged by color and thickness—because she’d used Luck. And it had worked so beautifully she’d just known her mother would be proud.

Madelece’s shoulders dropped. “Thank you, Mother.”

Delora left the now-rumpled stack of clothes on the table. “Well, dear girl, the Garden needs me! I’ll see you after you’ve finished all your breakfast.”


  1. Karen,

    That poem at the start really puts us right into the high fantasy setting. The ‘earthworms of anxiety’ is a nice touch to your nature setting and the culture Madelece is living in! I also like the establishment of how magic works in this universe (name says this)- that’s so crucial for magic worlds. I would like to know if the only way to know if Luck worked is by physically checking for it, just like Madelece does with the canoe, or is there something visceral/bodily about it? Madelece seems to have done some successful Luck before, so did she fool herself into thinking everything worked?

    I don’t understand why Madelce can’t be seen in a cloak around her mother. What’s wrong with cloaks?

    Madelece’s statment ‘despite this, and the closeness of hundreds of trees, the woods felt empty’ sounds like it relates to Madelece’s inner feelings about returning home- but seeing as the last paragraph just described how lively the woods was, this statement doesn’t have much impact. I feel like if Madelece explained a bit more we would get a fuller picture of what this meant.

    I’m excited to know more about the Luckless/Luckfull- this is interesting!

    Does Madelece not like the smell of roses because they surround her mother’s cottage, or is this a happy coincidence? Either way, does she notice the sudden smell of roses again when she reaches the cottage?

    In terms of the canoe, does Madelece paddle it with oars or with Luck? Because she struggled against the river during the trip to her mother’s, she’s tired (I think that’s what’s implied, but it’s never mentioned). Is she mentally or physically tired? I’m assuming Luck isn’t an infinite resource, so if she’s using it to paddle the canoe, in what ways is she tired? Am I misinterpreting Luck as an energy source, or is it something else?

    I got the impression that Madelece has some hope that her mother will appreciate and notice her. Is there any way to make this hope more apparent earlier than when she mentions the pressed clothes? Does her mother constantly judge her? Is this on Madelece’s mind while she walks to the house? What has her mother said to her about using Luck/her lack of talent when it comes to using it? It seems like there’s quite a bit of drama there that you can hint at some more.

    I personally feel like I need more information about the Harvest or the hatchlings to be more invested in reading on. Any way to let us know some of the process, what it looks like, what this means for the village?

    Some nit-picking:

    - ‘She practically walked into a wall of flowery perfume’ – Omit the ‘practically’; it implies that she almost walked into the smells did but didn’t, when we know the smell sticks to her nostrils.

    - ‘My daughter has returned!’ Is a bit obvious seeing as villagers know who Madelece is! Is there something else Delora can say that would give us a bit more clues to her personality? She seems to be very passive aggressive, so perhaps this is an opportunity to draw it out some more.

    - Delora’s repetition of ‘dear girl’ and ‘sweet girl’ in every other line she speaks is a bit awkward and stiff. This might just be me, but it brings me right out of the story.

    This story is quite original and I can’t wait to see what your pitch looks like; I’m interested in seeing how this plays out! Like I said with the others, I write big blocks of text, so don’t take the word count negatively :)

  2. Hi, Karen,

    I love your use of language: earthworms of anxiety,the path snaked through the woods, like snot she couldn’t sneeze out. Brilliant!

    You've done an excellent job of describing your setting and you're off to a great start of world-building.

    You may not want to use earthworms twice (the earthworms in her belly) unless she really has earthworms in there.

    The sleep study isn't referenced later in the first five pages. Can you wait to mention it? Closer to a place where you'll delve into it more?

    I was intrigued with the term, "Luck." I wondered if it referred to a person, but it refers to their "powers", right?

    When you use, "Great" as internal dialogue, it seemed out of place.

    I'm not sure I understand this part: To her right was the pumpkin patch full of orange, Luckfull pumpkins. From here, she couldn’t tell if there were any silver ones, but there were almost always Luckless hatchlings. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be many this Harvest. The afterlife wasn’t exactly easy on the Luckless, and even harder on the Forgotten. But, they wouldn’t know if there were any Forgotten until the hatchlings were ready for Delivery. Then, the Storks would either deliver them, or not.
    I think it will be important to your story and I just want to understand it more. But this could definitely just be my problem.

    If my math is correct, your MC is 12. I'm wondering if that's a little young for YA, but I'm sure you have a reason for choosing that age.

    I'm definitely interested in reading more and your revised pages. Keep only the suggestions that fit your story.

    Good luck!

  3. Hi, Karen!

    We are having a fantastic month for point of view characters. Madelece, our sole third person protagonist, certainly continues the streak. Whether or not you branch out to other focus characters later in the novel, you keep the spotlight firmly on Madelece through these sample pages. The readers know only what she knows, feels, and thinks, which gives them a chance to get to know her with, virtually, the same intimacy they know a first person protagonist.

    Yet, to my sensibility, it jars less when a third person-tight focus narrator slips in some background information for our edification. Such as the fact that Madelece spends summer solstice with her father and exchanges weekly pigeon-borne scrolls with him the rest of the year.

    The opening sextet economically and gracefully does the work of a prologue, providing an important snippet of background that you thus avoid needing to work in by way of Madelece. We learn that elves occupy center stage in the story, and that Owls (actual or mystical) act as their deities, or at least spirit guides. That Storks figure later adds to the avian mythology, and hey, even small-letter pigeons have a vital function. It also foreshadows trouble in the Garden, not from outside forces but from perhaps more deadly internal conflicts.

    The magic system, as shown so far, is understandable, intuitive and interesting. Its terminology is consistent: Luck (good), Luckless (not so good), Forgotten (the worst), Jinx an apparent epithet. But exactly what Luck represents we’ve yet to plumb. Is it really the product of chance? Doesn’t seem so. Seems confidence and personal force have much to do with it. Madelece starts out short on Luck, even though her voice (the magical instrument?) is “strong and sure.” Weird. Is she always lacking? She’s managed to fight her way up the contrary river. She magically (Luckily?) packed her satchel to perfection. But she did it while she was with Papa. Could it be something in the Valley that interferes with her ability? And could that be something be Mother?

    Mother reminds me strongly of the Tangled character, Mother Gothel, domineering to the point of smothering her supposedly beloved daughter. She talks the doting talk, but she does it in a “booming” voice that doesn’t pause for responses. Not that she needs responses, at least not from Madelece – she’s in charge here, deciding what’s what and what’s to be. Herself (perhaps Luckily) immaculate, effortlessly Lucky, she first implies that Madelece has gotten a bit fat (her father certainly feeds her well!), then forces a big breakfast on her (so Father won’t tell people she, Delora, does not feed her daughter.) Worse, she snatches Madelece’s satchel and dumps it on the table, destroying the Lucky neatness Madelece achieved earlier and hoped she’d notice. Now comes the martyr sigh that reduces Madelece to helplessness, oh she’ll wash and iron the things later.

    Delora’s a piece of work, I think, but a fun one. She’s achieved a high position in the Valley, from the deference Otto shows her. She’s a Gardener, and Garden is the center of this society, it seems. I’m intrigued by Madelece’s rumination over the pumpkin patch. Orange pumpkins apparently house Luckfull hatchlings, silver pumpkins Luckless ones. We don’t know yet what color Forgotten pumpkins are! But we do know afterlife (afterlife!) is harder on the Forgotten than even the Luckless, and that’s got to suck. The Storks won’t even deliver them, it seems. (continued below)

  4. A Harvest is at hand, so I anticipate learning more about the Garden shortly. I’m also looking forward to what Madelece will do with that cloak Papa made her and which she’s so carefully hidden from Mother. I doubt it’s meant only to keep her warm.

    Many nice details: the Luck-anchored canoes (of which Delora’s is, of course, the fanciest), the maple tea, the raven “ca-caws,” the blue roses which are Delora’s self-indulgence and to whose overbearing perfume Madelece seems allergic, metaphorically anyhow.

    My one real quibble is that while you label this a YA novel, Madelece at twelve years old is young for a YA protagonist. She fits nicely into the MG category, and really the diction and tone of the sample feels more MG to me than YA. So it wouldn’t be simply a matter of changing Madelece’s age to fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. She has the mindset and concerns of the twelve-year-old she says she is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Much right, in fact. Unless you mean to age Madelece to a teen before much longer, I’d suggest changing your label to MG fantasy. Then again, if you did age her suddenly, it could be less off-putting to a YA audience to start her off older from the start and adjust her POV accordingly.

    Oh, one more real quibble. The second sentence in the opening paragraph jerked me so hard out of my expectations for a high fantasy I got whiplash. Madelece is worried Mother won’t let her do a sleep study? Like, spend a night festooned with electrodes to determine something about her sleep/dream patterns? Or like, to conduct some kind of study into sleep herself? Either way, that’s high-tech human stuff, and the only instance of it such tech in the sample. Without further explanation, it doesn’t fit in the otherwise low-tech/magical setting. Nor does Madelece think about it again after that first paragraph. Given how nervous the coming confrontation with Mother makes her, I’d expect her to think more about that study as she approaches the house, to let us know, maybe, that Papa lives in the modern human world, while Mother leaves in a parallel elvish realm. Or whatever may be the case.

    Overall, thumbs up. I’m excited to get into the Garden, to plumb the mysteries of Luck, and to see how Madelece’s conflict with Mother escalates, how rumors poison the Garden.

  5. As someone who enjoys structured and rhyming poetry, I loved the epigraph! It does a solid job at setting the scene.

    “The path snaked through the woods. Early morning sunlight dusted the forest floor. Familiar raven ca-caws echoed around her, and rabbits scurried into their burrows as she walked by. Despite this, and the closeness of hundreds of trees, the woods felt empty.” This is perhaps my favorite passage. It made me picture it so vividly, as if I’m standing there myself.

    I like the fact you introduce magic early in the chapter. Using the canoe to highlight the magic is brilliant. It’s interesting to see Madelece struggle to use it properly. Personally, I find it hard to connect with flawless MCs, so that part makes it much easier to connect with her.

    I’m definitely intrigued by how Luck works, although the Luckless/Luckfull thing confused me. I think a small explanation before the end of first five pages would make it easier to follow since it seems to be like such a key part of story.

    Really like the MC’s name and that you tell the reader how to pronounce it. I’m interested to find out more about her relationship with her parents and how the sleep study plays out in the rest of the story.
    I am wondering what’s at stake in the story, but your world-building is solid enough that it makes me want to read more. Can’t wait to see the pitch and get a better sense of the overarching story.

  6. Hi Karen!
    Thanks so much for sharing your pages with us! I love an inventive fantasy world, and this one seems so promising with the mention of Owls (as deities?), the pumpkins that contain luck, and the innovative way of doing magic.

    I, too really like that epigraph, but I would love you to draw it in even more into the story. I'll be honest and say that I read it pretty quickly the first time through, as I think a lot of readers do with epigraphs, so I wasn't connecting the elf-lives with the luck in the pumpkins until I went back to re-look at it. I think that everything you can do to subtly EXPLAIN the world building a bit more in these opening pages is going to add to the stakes the reader might become invested in. I don't necessarily mean explaining the backstory of how everything works, but instead giving some indication about what is at stake. For instance, the Forgotten--what are those? why/how do they affect the plot of your story and/or your MCs goals? What happens if there is a bad harvest of luck? A good harvest? Is luck=magic? Does it fuel magical spells?Or is it more like currency? I was a bit unclear about how that works. Also, how do the spells work--the word Jinx. Is that when things do or don't happen? Or is it just her internal curse that she uses to express something?

    I also think that in these first 5 pages you can start to build the goals of your main character more. It's clear in that opening sentence that she wants to do a sleep study, but WHY? Why wouldn't her mother allow it? What does the sleep study have to do with luck? With visiting her father or coming back to her mother? Does it have anything to do with hiding the cloak?

    I know you can't do EVERYTHING in the first 5, but I feel like by the end of this sample, I should have a better sense of what is at stake for her with the study and her place in the world. To keep reading and to be patient about the world building questions, I want a sense of what she wants or needs as a character--even if it's just the beginning of teasing that out.

    I also have a question about genre. It says that she's done the harvest for 7 years--since she was five. That would make her 12? This seems a bit on the young side for YA. Which might not be a problem--the voice in this would work well for MG too.

    Finally- Some smaller, more specific comments:
    *Watch for repetitive sentence construction- first paragraph has a lot of she+verb sentences that feel a little repetitive.

    *Despite this, and the closeness of hundreds of trees, the woods felt empty.= a great line!!

    *Everything neatly in its spot. Immaculate. Just like her mother. = excellent way to develop character by showing rather than telling. Tells us so much about Madelece in contrast :O)

    *I’m not sure about the earthworm image. I guess it works if you want a squiggly squirmy feeling, but then later, they tighten, and I’m not sure I can picture that metaphor working. Maybe snakes tighten, but worms always strike me as more lazy or soft.

    Overall a really interesting first 5 pages and I can't wait to see what you do to it!! :O)

  7. Hey Karyn!

    This is a fascinating first five pages! The world you're creating sounds really intriguing and unusual, which is awesome. You do a good job on sensory details, and establishing some low key conflict right up front and I really like the tension with her mother.

    I will say that I got thrown out of the story a few times, not so much because of specific problems, but more because I felt like the worldbuilding was a bit...jerky? If that makes sense.

    For example, "sleep study" is a very modern sounding phrase, so it then threw me off to hear it and then go back to what reads as a pretty low tech setting. The Valley is rather vaguely described, and there are canoes and cloaks, so I was settling into a medivalish fantasy world and suddenly there are pumpkins and Luckless and Storks and Forgotten, and a reference to the Afterlife that made me wonder if that's where we actually were. The Valley and the Beach are capitalized, which makes me think these are specific, special places, distinct from other, more ordinary valleys and beaches, but I don't have enough context to know that for sure.

    (then I went back and read your verse at the beginning, after I'd read the rest of it, and I was like, wait are these elves??? Because if you distinguished these characters from human in any way, I missed it.)

    I think we need just a little more context here, tbh. Worldbuilding in fantasy is honestly, surprisingly hard. Fantasy readers are generally fine with getting their information sprinkled in a bit at a time, but you also want to keep us grounded as you go, or we get lost. And one thing that really needs establishing up front is Where we are. Not the entire world story in an epilogue, that's almost never necessary, but the beginning should give us a good sense of setting. "Medivalish fantasy world where dragons exist" or "Ordinary British world with hidden wizards" or whatever. I'd encourage you to read the first pages of your favorite fantasies and see how they set up settings and expectations without being to infodumpy. Like I said it's a balance, but I fully believe you can pull it off, :)

    Can't wait to see the next revision!


    PS. While I think it's can work to weave in backstory in this kind of story, I don't necessarily think you need the paragraph about her living with her father. That information is pretty much already scattered throughout these pages, at least enough that the reader can put things together.

  8. Thanks, everyone for your feedback. I've found it very helpful. Time for revising! :)