Sunday, October 2, 2016

1st 5 Pages October Workshop - Milton

Name: Michelle B. Milton
Genre: Young Adult Gothic Dystopian
Title: Trigger Warning

<b>Thursday May 20th ‘14<b/>

<i>Killdeer, Saskatchewan<i/>

<i>Grey, Cold, Dark<i/>


I was often visited by Leo Hart, even long after his funeral.

It was the last day before exam season, and according to the clock on my cell Leo had been dead for 12 years and 4 minutes, officially.

Out of the corner of my eye, red-gold sunlight flickered on Leo’s brown arms. When I turned to see him, as I often tried to, he was gone. There was nothing but the disturbed water over my shoulder, and the darkening empty bank on the other side of Copper Lake  Park. I never could get a clear look, but I knew it was him, or, a stiller, picture-like version of him.

The park was beginning to darken, and a thin layer of mist had sunk down with the sun. Towards the water’s edge, my classmates from the academy were grouped by the turn table; the speakers were finally working, and the bass now gently rippled the deep red viscous  water of the lake.

I sat on a log by the empty fire pit with best friends Micah Quinn and Columbina Adams. We were far enough from the speakers to be able to hold a decent conversation, but we hadn’t had one of those in a couple years.

The last light filtered through the trunks of long dead quaking aspens, their shadows boxing in my birthday party. I was sixteen now, and Micah had told me this year was supposed to be special. ‘A year of firsts’ he said, raising his bottle with the rest of  the crowd. I had suffered enough firsts already; first broken bone, first F on a test, first dead body, and worse, first heartbreak.

Columbina shrugged on Micah’s jacket and pulled her soft brown hair over the collar. Everything about her made me want more of her. Her lips were always glossed, kissable, and candy apple red. She always wore bright colours; she said dark colours should only  be worn at funerals and by emos. Tonight, at my birthday, she wore black, with a smoke and ash eye shadow that left me uncomfortably aware of her beautiful eyes.

We had always called her Bean, mostly because it was easier to pronounce as kids, but the name had been whispered, gasped and cried too many times for me to be comfortable using it anymore: ‘Columbina’ would do for now.

I loved the way she mocked everything she lay her eyes on. But most of all, what I loved about Columbina was that she was all about the next obsession, and once, not a few months ago, that obsession had been me. It sucks being a fad.

Micah sat between Columbina and I on the log. I could just make out Columbina’s sour expression as she examined her nails. She glanced at me, smirked and pecked Micah on the lips quickly. She immediately pulled her red lip-gloss out of her pocket and re-applied  it.

Micah wiped the excess gloss away with his thumb. He had no idea.

Loneliness and yearning tugged at my heart; I was tired of playing this game with her, and I wasn’t okay to spend the rest of my sophomore year alone.

In the crowd, I spotted two that were far older than any of my classmates here. The first was a thin blonde woman, twenty three years old, and in a grey skirt suit that made her look boring and old. The permanent scowl she'd inherited from the Chairman was  an excellent, albeit off-putting, poker face, but you could usually count on the compulsive rubbing of her temples to betray her feelings. She held a bundle of firewood, and talking to a taller silver-haired man in his mid forties.

“You said there wouldn’t be supervision.” I said, pointing to them.

Micah spotted them and grimaced, “First the police and now the Executioner?”

Columbina huffed and sunk down into the sand. “Tonight’s going to suck.”

Micah lowered himself beside Columbina as he looped an arm over her. She rested her head on his shoulder and cuddled closer. Micah gestured I slide down with them. I did.

“Between us,” he said in an undertone, “there’s a blind spot in their surveillance at the maintenance shed. Maybe you can your first kiss out of the way.”

“Choose someone gross so you might have a chance.” Columbina turned a little pink as she said this.

“I can have anyone I want,” I smiled despite the knot in my stomach, and I forced my eyes to meet hers. To my delight, Columbina glared back at me. Micah snorted.

“If you’re so good at seducing people, do it right now,” He challenged.

The idea put a revenge plan into motion.

I didn’t normally plan so little in advance, but when Columbina showed up tonight wearing black I wanted to give her a matching eye.

I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and texted a mutual friend:

<i>*Are you here yet?*<i/>

Columbina huffed and hugged the jacket tighter around her. My phone buzzed in my hands:

Text Message From: RIICHI COLE

<i>*Yeah! were on the dock. What’s up? If its about socials my dad says doing the red/white rebellion would be kind of “gauche”. His words not mine hashtag sorry*<i/>

I could just see the dock from where I was sitting. Riichi was with two of his friends, skipping rocks on the surface of the lake. He and I were both looking to apply to the University of Montana in the south when the time came. I continued to write my message,  hardly taking my eyes off him.

<i>*There’s a shed on the other side of the lake. Meet me there in ten.*<i/>

I watched Riichi look down at his phone, and then look directly at us. While I couldn’t see his face from this far, I figured he looked surprised. He typed out a quick reply; his closest friend yanked the phone from his hand, and began to read the messages.  Riichi put his hand out, presumably to ask for it back when his friend tossed it to the third. Riichi pressed his hands to his face, and I thought I could hear a faint echo of a complaint between music tracks.

Text Message From: RIICHI COLE

<i>*I’ll be there.*<i/>

I smirked as Riichi’s friend finally tossed his phone back at him.

“What’s that about?” Columbina asked sharply, following my gaze.

“I’m going to take a walk. You’re not invited.” I told them, getting up and brushing the sand from my light blue dress.

“We don’t keep secrets from each other!” Micah protested. I wondered if he took that promise as seriously as Columbina and I have.


I turned on my heels and walked towards the path that lead to the other side of the lake.

Eat shit, Columbina Adams.


  1. Is the date/location/tone/time important at the opening? If not, I would try to weave it into the story at a different place. I found myself skimming past it to get to the first line.

    LOVE the first sentence. Definitely drew me in.

    Is ‘clock on my cell’ a term for cellphone in the story? It gave me pause, because I had to stop and think: is this an actual clock on a prison cell or is this a cellphone? I eventually figured it out though. :)

    I’m a bit confused…are the visions of Leo a dream? Or is the protag awake when Leo visits? From the setting with the friends at the lake, I’m guessing the protag is awake. Maybe move the info about sitting at the lake up sooner.

    Lol…Really like the detail about heartbreak being worse than a dead body.

    ‘It sucks being a fad.’ Is such a great line!

    I really like the idea of this line: (Loneliness and yearning tugged at my heart; I was tired of playing this game with her, and I wasn’t okay to spend the rest of my sophomore year alone.) But, it comes across a bit tell-y. Could you show the emotion a bit more? You’ve done a great job showing the friends’ emotions. I want to know/feel more for the protag.

    Ooo, I love how you’ve subtly woven in that your protag is bi-sexual. Great job! I’m definitely intrigued.

    To be honest, I was a bit confused for most of the middle part of the pages. I was excited to find out more about Leo, but then the story switched gears to the friends at the party. I thought the balance of narrative, action, and dialogue was handled well though.
    I liked the mention of an Executioner, but other than that I wasn’t really getting a gothic dystopian vibe from the story. Maybe add more about Leo, or even move the part about Leo as the hook at the end of the five pages.

    Is the protag’s goal to get revenge on Columbina? I’m curious what happened when the protag was the object of her obsession, especially since the protag hasn’t been kissed yet.

    Right now, the major hook for me personally to keep reading is the fact that the protag is bi. If the part about Leo, or even more about the dystopian aspect of the world was mentioned sooner, I think it would be a stronger hook-ending.

    I’m definitely interested to see your pitch! I bet there are really cool things that take place in this story!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for your comments Karen, they were very helpful!

      To be honest I wasn’t sure if I should include the top bits (date, location, weather) in my submission because they are technically part of the Chapter title, and are meant to act as diary headings and subheadings for every chapter. They do provide context, so I left them in :) And while you don’t get to see one, when time jumps ahead between scenes, I give the time. Her cellphone is pretty important to the story, so I wanted to emphasize that she’s constantly checking it.

      I know exactly what you mean in terms of seeing genre. What happens between the protagonist and Columbina in this chapter sets up all the drama that’s to come, so I put a primary focus on their relationship and not the genres. The gothic part is a recent addition to the story because I realised the setting/plot fit perfectly in to the Gothic genre, though this is probably the reason why Leo is so suddenly dropped from the opening chapter (you make a good point there)! Furthermore, my protagonist comes from a family that benefits from the dystopian environment, but isn’t ultra rich either… maybe adding a lower income character to this scene would emphasize the extent to which she has money/power.

      As for the cell, the double entendre was on purpose, I’ll keep your reaction in mind!

      I recently figured out how the drama between Columbina and the MC is played out, so the MC will have more to feel during this scene for sure! Also the idea is that she has been kissed, but has kept it secret from Micah, who has been dating Columbina this entire time (I may have to make this clearer).

      Glad you like the bi-sexual vibes- I find that this particular sexuality is never explored in YA dystopians, let alone in the protagonist (that I know of, anyways), so I'm going ahead and doing just that

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi, Michelle!

    I love this line: I was often visited by Leo Hart, even long after his funeral!! I also really liked your last line.

    The names of all your characters are so unique. I'm definitely interested in finding out who Leo is. Also, I love the text messages.

    Okay, now on to some thoughts I have. (Please only use what feels right to you.)

    I found myself wondering about the gender of your MC early on. You eventually reveal this, but I wonder if you could do so earlier to take the guessing so the reader can focus on the story.

    I also wondered if there was a break in time between these two lines:The idea put a revenge plan into motion. AND I didn’t normally plan so little in advance, but when Columbina showed up tonight wearing black I wanted to give her a matching eye.

    It felt like there was a break, but that may have just been me. If there is a break, you may want to denote that with a #.

    I'm eager to read more!

    Good luck!

    1. Glad to know you like the names! I went through at least 3 different iterations of each before I finally settled haha.

      In terms of bringing the gender in earlier, I wanted to introduce the voice before the reader was introduced with the gender or name, but maybe it’s not working as well as I hoped!

      Now that you’ve pointed out the break between those two lines, I see that it breaks the flow too- especially if I read it out loud. Not quite what I was going for! I think I’ll try and combine the two paragraphs and see if that works better in terms of narrative flow.

      Thank you for the comments! I’ll definitely keep them in mind :)

  4. Amazing first line! It hooked me in immediately. From the start it makes me want to know who exactly this Leo Hart is, and the fact that it’s not revealed immediately adds to the intrigue. Although I agree with Karen that tying him somehow to the end of the first five pages would make the hook stronger.

    Really love the dark color imagery throughout the scene. It doesn’t scream Gothic yet, but it’s setting the stage nicely for it.

    I like how you set up the frenemy relationship between the protagonist and Columbina. One instant she’s described as having kissable lips, the other the protagonists is thinking “Eat shit, Columbina Adams; loved that line! The bi storyline definitely throws even more intrigue between them.

    I do find not knowing the protagonist’s name a bit disorienting. We know so much about her friends, but we don’t know even know her name. That may just be a personal preference.

    I’m looking forward to finding out more about Micah. At this point he’s overshadowed by Columbina’s spotlight and the mysterious Leo, so it will be interesting to see how his story arc unfolds.
    Overall, a really solid first five pages that absolutely makes me want to read more!

  5. I’m so happy to see that everyone is so interested in Leo- because he plays a significant role in the rest of the story! He does kind of up and disappear, doesn’t he? I think you and Karen both make a good case! He doesn’t reappear for another chapter or so, so I can see how having him leave with a bit more fanfare is more satisfying for the reader.

    As I mentioned in another comment, the MC (Brooke) is actually named like two sentences after the end of the submission, right at the end of the scene, but maybe that’s too long of a wait! I kind of like how the scene ends with ‘Eat shit’ as well, so I might just end it there and have the name dropped a bit sooner.

    I’m starting to think Micah might get a bit more of the spotlight in this opening scene. I haven’t found a way to organically introduce that he and Brooke are cousins, and that they’re also very much in the frenemy zone, which is kind of necessary for later scenes!

    Thank you for your comments, I’m glad that you wanted to read more!

  6. Hi, Michelle!

    The first thing that intrigues me in your sample pages is the genre description -- is "Gothic dystopian" an official publishing term? Yes or no, it's a clever way to indicate your novel will have both dark (possibly supernatural) elements and future-gone-sour ones.

    The first sentence is a hook that succeeds in reeling me in, as are the two paragraphs following. Promises are made, a strong plus (as long as they're kept.) That Leo is the first named character implies he'll be an important one. That the narrator remembers the time of his death to the minute implies she might have been there. (Does she actually keep a timer on her cellphone to remind her how long he's been gone? If so, I'd like to know that. Or that the "timer" is in her head.)

    Of the headings, I think only "Killdeer, Saskatchewan" works hard enough to earn the place. As a reader, I always like knowing where the story's transporting me. The " '14" in the date line strikes me as overly coy, since it leaves the exact year vague. Is it 2014? 2114? 22014? "Grey, cold, dark" gets contradicted by the "red-gold sunlight on Leo's brown arms," an excellent detail in itself.

    Other excellent details are the "red, viscous water" of the lake. Red? Viscous? Eww, sounds like blood! Also "the long dead quaking aspens" whose shadows box in the narrator's birthday party. These specifics are atmospheric and telling as to the nature of the dystopia -- the natural world is messed up for sure. It's even thematic -- the ruin of narrator's environment imposes not only shadows but severe limits on her life.

    More descriptions subtly lead the reader beneath the surface of the situation. The narrator has already experienced "firsts," some relatively banal (the broken bone, the F on a test), one a bombshell (the dead body.) Whose? Leo's? Next comes the first considers even worse than a corpse: first heartbreak. In the next three paragraphs, we deduce that Columbina is the heartbreaker. I especially like her declaration she'd only wear black to a funeral -- and yet she's wearing black to the party. Now I've got to wonder who or what (besides Leo) has died. Possibly Columbina's feelings for the narrator?

    It's nasty she'd proclaim this on narrator's birthday. Then she rubs salt into the wound by flirting with Micah. I could use a little clarification on what makes narrator think Micah has "no idea" as he's wiping off Columbina's lip gloss. Otherwise I find that sentence a bit of a non sequitur.

    The interaction among the three friends is realistic and dynamic -- obviously things are changing in their formerly tight triad, and not in a way the narrator likes. Her voice is strong and consistent. As is reader-crucial in first person POV, I like "listening" to her, find her observations keen and her emotions sympathetic. One thing I'd like, though, is to know her gender and name much closer to the opening of the story. The name would be easy enough (unless it's gender ambiguous) -- Micah or Columbina could address her by it. Again, if not gender ambiguous, that would reveal male or female.

    My impression was that the narrator was female, but her relationship to Columbina made me wonder. Yeah, yeah, the whole heteronormative thing! When the reveal finally came (the "light blue dress"), I was a little put-off. It made the narrator's apparent bisexuality something of a punchline, a surprise that didn't really surprise, so anticlimactic.

    I like that the narrator doesn't wilt before Columbina's meanness but quickly counters the slap. That Richii's their "mutual acquaintance" hints Columbina might be interested in him, as does her behavior as she watches the assignation-via-text. (continued below)

  7. Okay, so we have teen conflict that could work in many genres, but we also get more glimpses of potential dystopian elements. There's the blonde woman who's inherited her scowl-mask from "the Chairman." Micah refers to "police" and "the Executioner." Is he referring to the party interlopers? Ominous titles, if so. Confusing if not. Clarify to whom Micah refers?

    By sample end, I'm looking for more, a very good sign. I'm also hoping within this chapter or the immediately following ones to learn more about Leo, the party interlopers, what kind of trouble they could cause for narrator. What's with the blood-red water and dead trees? What's this academy, and how serious are its exams? You've done a good job staying in tight first person POV, not letting the narrator say or think about things too much a part of her everyday reality for her to self-address. In other words, no infodumps. I would like a better sense of the narrative target, by which I mean, who is the narrator "talking to" via the story she tells. If her intended "audience" is one that shares her reality, that "audience" would already know about the Executioner and socials and red/white rebellion. It won't be startled by the degraded environment.

    It's a valid approach, but difficult, since the "audience" and the reader are not in the same boat. A naive narrative target -- the narrator addresses an audience that doesn't know about her world -- is an easier approach, as is one where the narrator herself is naive (and so can have stuff explained to her.)

    Which isn't to say you should change the narrator's implied audience. You're already doing well with the more challenging approach. In general, I think it's a good idea to consider the narrative target and the reader may be distinct entities. The task is to balance their "needs." The target might not need to have things defined and explained, but the reader could. Maybe you can plausibly sneak in some more hints about the fictive world for the reader? Here in the opening pages or soon after?

    I understand we're not here to line-edit, but looking forward to the agents who might receive these pages, it's not too early to polish grammar and style. Things like "Micah sat between Columbina and I [Columbina and me]" and nonstandard dialogue attribution ("You said there wouldn't be supervision." I said, rather than standard "You said there wouldn't be supervision," I said) were surprising blots in an otherwise accomplished performance. I also noticed two smirks and two huffs in close proximity, which strikes me as overuse of distinctive verbs.

    In summary, Leo lures me into the sample and the friends' interactions carry me through. Trouble's hinted at. Narrator takes (maybe rash) action. That's a lot to pull off in five pages! A few more (still subtle) hints at the setting/world situation and its dangers, a little smoothing of grammar and style, possibly an indication Leo will soon "reappear," and you'll have set the hook in my jaw quite firmly.

    1. Hi Anne!

      You’ve given me a lot to think about. Your breakdown of the scene as you saw it was very helpful in removing me from the writer’s POV and into the reader’s. In terms of the genre- I’m sure the combination exists somewhere in the publishing world (and I need to find those books)!

      It’s definitely looking like I need to introduce the main character a little bit more! I think I was so concerned with getting the voice out and mercilessly cutting exposition that I kind of forgot about the rest (looks, name), which might be important to have in these first few pages :D. That’s getting fixed for sure.

      I’m glad you caught the ‘light blue dress’ thing, because I added it last minute as an “oh gosh I need to let people know what gender she is”, and yet did not consider just dropping her name somewhere. Oops! This was not meant as a punchline, but I see how it can totally come out that way!

      I’ll see if I can add more hints about the world into these pages. The city anniversary is happening in the first few chapters which will allow for some natural explanations of the more dystopian elements, as well as current events she learns through her phone. As she uncovers more about her friends and family, she’s gradually exposed to the city’s political turmoil.

      I’ve struggled with grammar/spelling since elementary school, so I’m not surprised I didn’t catch these mistakes. Is it common practice to send manuscript excepts to an editor before querying?

      I will keep the reader’s and the "audience’s" needs in mind when writing! I’ve never thought about it this way.

      Thank you for your detailed observations and advice, they were very helpful!

  8. Hi Michelle,

    I enjoyed this a great deal. You have many wonderful turns of phrase, and you jump right into drama between interesting characters. The first line and the questions surrounding the dead Leo Hart drew me in and kept me wanting to read on!

    That said, I felt a bit as though the story was a bait and switch, so I suggest a few changes. Please consider:

    1) Integrating a tiny bit more of the Leo bit throughout the subsequent setup of the relationship between Bean, Micah, Riichi, and your protag. What happens to Leo during this? Is he still there? Is he still? Is she aware of him at all? Use this scene to foreshadow and use Leo to drive some additional tension.

    2) Grounding us a with enough context to follow the turns of the story more fully. You introduce your characters very naturally, which I appreciate. The downside of this is that I'm not sure I followed all of your backstory and felt like I was working a little too hard to understand what was going on to feel like I was really sinking into the story and enjoying as much as I would have liked.

    3) Provide more context into your main character. Make sure we know the important details so that we can visualize your m/c moving through the story. It's hard to get fully engaged without that image.

    4) Make sure we understand who the adults are and why they and the security setup are there with enough detail to appreciate whether or not there is danger for your M/C in meeting Riichi behind the shed. Right now, I'm not sure whether there is a risk of physical consequences as well as emotional ones.

    5) Make certain we visualize the setup and the overall larger context of the setting more clearly. You have a gift for establishing details that make the story spring to life, but the overall image is fuzzier.

    That's a start for now, because everything else will likely shift as you address those main points. Your writing is lovely, although on the final draft you'll need to proofread more carefully.

    I'm eager to see the next round. This was a fantastic start and promises to be an engaging story!



    1. Hello Martina!

      I will certainly try weaving in a bit more setting context into this excerpt. Like I said in other comments, I was really concerned with giving only the smallest bit of exposition at a time, but I think I may have over-corrected. It seems to have taken away from the ‘big picture’ of the scene, which I did not give much thought as I was so focused with details and word choice. I was also afraid of describing the character because I didn’t want an iteration of the ‘then I looked myself in the mirror and I saw I had brown hair etc.’ trope. There are other ways of describing a character, of course, so I’ll make sure to add in some physical features in there to give the reader some grounding, as you said.

      I’m pleased you liked it! Thank you for your comments, they’re really helping me in my revision process :)

  9. Hi, Michelle,

    Sorry I'm late! You did an excellent job with your descriptions and your characterizations in this first sample. I love how naturally you introduce them, like we're dropping in on the middle of a conversation instead of being infodumped with a ton of backstory. Great job with that!

    I do agree with Martina, though, that I'd like a little more context woven in. Maybe a sentence here or there that hints at more big picture stuff, like world, history/family-life of our protagonist, something to ground us more in the fabric of your story. It feels a little disjointed between the introduction of the ghost/dead body (which I loved!) to the frenemy relationships playing out in real time. A little hint of a wider world beyond the academy and the here-and-now might help, just for context.

    Also, be a bit careful with your protagonist's coming off as selfish and a user. I would definitely recommend a save-the-cat moment somewhere in your first or second chapter, so readers can sympathize with your protagonist. I can sympathize with her feeling hurt and betrayed by Columbina, but it's not enough for me to root for her revenge plot. She has to be a better person than Columbina for me to really get on board with her, and I'm not really seeing that yet. Not that she has to be perfect! I like my heroes smudged and dirty--gives them a chance for redemption and character growth that I find highly satisfying. But there needs to be a seed of something worth redeeming in the beginning of the story for me to want to go on that journey with them. One thing you could consider is maybe adding a quick mention of how the protag feels about seeing Leo long after his funeral--does she feel sad or guilty or a little frightened or irritated or a combination of the above? Right now all we know is that she sees him. You don't have to put that in; it's just an opportunity for us to see a different side of the protag beyond reacting out of hurt and potentially hurting someone else.

    Anyhoo, hope this helps! Great spooky tone! I look forward to reading more!