Saturday, January 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Smith-Allen

Name: Rebecca Smith-Allen
Genre: YA thriller
Title: In A Flash
Chapter 1: Thursday, September 8th, 7:30 am
These days, I’m only happy when I turn myself inside-out and go back in time.
Not far back, only a few months.
But thousands of miles from where I stand now, and another life.
Four months earlier
May 15th, 11:00 am
Stone stops climbing, rests her hands on a steep, rough-cut step in front of her and lets her silky, black hair fall forward into her face. “I’m going to die of a heart attack at the age of sixteen. All this has been here for hundreds of years. What difference will another ten minutes make?”
“Perfect day…perfect company…I want my perfect view.” I drag my body up another stair. “Also, Usain and Stephan already made it and they’ve got the food. Either we get to the top, or we don’t eat.”
Stone’s mouth quirks and she resumes trudging upward.
The stairs are an awkward climb. Their depth too shallow for our feet, their steepness straining gluts, quads and hamstrings. They were made for soldiers to guard the border, not for tourists. One wrong step would have us bouncing our way down, one bone-breaking jolt after another. The thought makes me shift my weight forward and keep one eye on Stone.
Then I hear it, the thumping techno beat of Stephan’s music. We’re too far to make out the lyrics, but close enough for the bass to call us up the last handful of stairs. At the top, we’re rewarded with Berlin techno at full volume and nods from Usain and Stephan who are chugging water. We turn to see the view an hour’s climb has earned us.
The Great Wall is mile after mile of hand-wrought stonework. Imposing…monumental… breath-taking, it’s all the superlatives. Crenellations on either side no longer obscure our view and we can see towers rising every half-mile as the wall winds along the mountain ridge. Ten-feet wide where we’re standing, it stretches miles beyond where we started — ten-thousand miles if you count where it trails off into a low, unrestored boundary marker in the far west. Even here, it seems to narrow in the distance, thinning to a pathway, then a ribbon of stone before fading into the mountain.
The sheer volume of rock moved to create this structure makes me feel small. The hours…the lives that went into building it. Who am I to stand above it looking down?
The north side is the land of waiguoren. Foreigners. The wall was built to keep them out. Now, a forest lines the wall, not invading Mongols.
The south side of the wall is Zhongguo. The middle kingdom. China.
We’d spent five days exploring Beijing’s cultural heritage on this class trip, but this was what I was waiting for. I could stand here forever, taking in this view.
The song on Stephan’s phone changes to classic Reggae. Usain’s song. He takes my hand, raising it high to twirl me, then pulls me toward him. Chin lifted, eyes closed, he shifts purposefully from one foot to the other, nodding in time with the music. There’s still a sheen of perspiration from the climb on his ebony skin, but he couldn’t look more beautiful.
I let my hips sway with the slow rhythm and pull free the elastic holding my blond hair off my neck, letting it fall.
Beside Usain, Stephan can’t slow himself to the steady calm of the Reggae. He drums the air and jumps, jumps, jumps to the techno beat that disappeared everywhere but inside his head when the last song ended.
Stone joins us. Her dark eyes crinkle with laughter as she takes in the chill-Jamaican and the won’t-stop-for-a-breath German dancing side-by-side on top of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
A whoop comes from behind us, and Renato and Jade heave themselves up the last step and collapse nearby. When they catch their breath, they join in the lyrics at the top of their lungs, their Brazilian and British accents blending with the island lilt. Six classmates, five nationalities.
The music changes and my smile brightens. I dance bigger, louder. Hips swinging and every other part of me too.
I put my hands up they’re playing my song, the butterflies fly away,
Noddin’ my head like “Yeah,” Moving my hips like “Yeah.”
I got my hands up their playing my song, I know I’m gonna be okay.
Yeah, It’s a party in the USA.
Our song. Thank you, Miley. Stone and I dance like there’ll be no tomorrow.
“USA” didn’t mean much to me then. It was the country imprinted on the front of my passport, but I hadn’t lived there since I was too young to remember. It was “my table” at the International food fair and “my song” when we each picked one for the class mix.
But it would soon mean so much more.
I was good at pushing it from my mind, but I already knew my days were numbered.
Chapter 2: June 30th
Chapter 3: Thursday, September 8th, 7:30 am
The familiar ring of Stone’s laughter in the memory was shattered by a mocking taunt. It slashed at me through the thrum of the crowded high-school hallway. “China’s got her swagger on today. Lookin’ good, girl!”
That voice turned the blood in my veins to ice, freezing my hips mid-step.
The Great Wall was gone and I was left with the sharp-edged smirk of my nightmares glaring down at me. He stood with a crowd of friends — he was never alone — his shoulder propped lazily against the locker behind him. Dark, curly hair hid one eye, but his other charcoal eye was locked on me, daring me for another round of “haze the new girl.” The cell phone in his hand continued to play my song, but the melody sounded tinny now. Distant.
As distant as the life that was no longer mine.
The halls were tight with people making their way to homeroom and a crowd pressed behind me. Nightmare liked crowds. Why harass me one-on-one when the opportunity for public humiliation presented itself?
I clenched my gut and refused to let him win this time. “No one can hurt you without your permission,” Stone’s mom liked to say. Tipping my head to one side, I brightened my smile.
Never let your opponent see your pain,” Sensei Wu’s deep voice had repeated every class. My smile gleamed like that day on the Great Wall.
“A class trip to the Great Wall? Who does that? What planet are you from?” Nightmare asked me on my first day of school in America. Said it with that same self-assured smirk on his face. Nice way to make someone feel welcome, asshole.
And I gave him the smile from when I’d knocked out my last opponent in the Shanghai Martial Arts Tournament. Not the picture-perfect smile from when I stood on the dais holding the trophy high. The smile from when I heard her breath huff out and saw her eyes go wide as she fell back to the mat. 
I would beat this nightmare too, and he’d never see it coming.
His brow furrowed, three creases appearing just above his nose, as he stood there wondering why I was smiling. He had no idea who he was up against.
And with a toss of my hair, turned my back on him and got my hips swinging again. The onlookers parted as I swaggered down the hall to homeroom.



  1. Whoops! The images didn't come through! The first was two plane tickets from Shanghai, China to Beijing for Avery Dixon and Stone Jia. The second was a plane ticket from Shanghai to JFK, New York for Avery Dixon. Sorry about that!

    I'm looking forward to reading your pages!

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I like the form and the potential here for a really cool YA novel! Thanks for filling in what the images are supposed to be.

    The voice is really working for me too! But maybe there’s a moment where it might not sound YA-enough for me without a little more work: “it’s all the superlatives”. Is this something your character would know and use? I can see maybe superlatives being used in reference to an SAT word, or linked to English class/a test, but just out of the blue, without a teen-connection, it’s a moment where I question the voice.

    Oh, it’s a class trip: I think I need to know that sooner. It would really help to ground me in the scene and in the novel.

    I do feel like I want a hint that this is a thriller in the first 5 pages, and other than the “prologue-like thing,” I’m not sure that comes across super clearly in this sample. Let’s see what other people think!

    It’s one of those timing things: it really helps if you sample ends on a sharp note: something that makes the agent/reader want to keep flipping the pages. Can you end this sample on a stronger hook?

    Looking forward to seeing your revision!


  3. Re: formatting -- Most agents say they'll delete a query if there are any attachments and including images could detour your query straight into the recycle bin. Don't include them!

    Generally I like this, but I think it could be tightened up. Your first section about going back in time didn't really add anything for me. I feel like the novel begins with your current third chapter, and everything before that should be woven is at back story. Your conflict is interesting, and the hints of your main character's experience and apparent fighting prowess left me wanting more. While your details about the class trip and the Great Wall are good, I'm not sure they moved the plot forward.

  4. Hello Rebecca!

    Thank you for sharing your work with us today. As I read this, there were sections of voice that I found very appealing, especially in the scene set in China, but overall we need to draw your story into focus a bit more so that readers will have a smooth entry into your world and story.

    I find the opening lines interesting, if a bit vague. Could these lines be the start of another story? If so, they aren't specific enough to yours yet.

    The time shifts are also intriguing, but I find the opening lines to the second scene disorienting because it starts with “Stone” and stays with her for several sentences before we get back to our narrator. This made me think that we were in third person and that Stone was the main character. I recommend starting with your viewpoint character, grounding us in Where and When we are, so that the reader is pulled straight into the story and the narrator’s POV.

    The rest of the scene flows nicely from there, though I’m still unsure of the gender of our narrator. I was imagining a dude at first for some reason—maybe the cadence of the voice. The final line also throws me a bit: "I was good at pushing it from my mind, but I already knew my days were numbered.” This is a statement that raises a question, but also feels like I should understand it to some degree, which I do not. Mystery in the opening is good, but beware of raising too many open-ended story questions without answering any of them. A reader can only hold so many story questions in their head—we will need some answers to make sense of this scene, which should be starting to establish the central story question a bit more….or at least WHY this scene is so important. Like “This was the last time I saw all of them alive.” That’s a cheesy line off the top of my head, but it quite clearly tells me what to expect in the coming pages—someone dies, and there’s a mystery unfolding about what happens.

    Ch2 seems to have held an image, though I can’t see it here, and I agree with others that they’re better left out. You can call out the need for an image with this format: >image description<

    The opening to Ch3 has a slight issue with narrative progression. You announce the mocking taunt before we hear it. It’s best to show this happen, rather than telling us before we read the dialogue. Show us what your character really hears first—a laugh, a cutting voice, a hand slapping against a locker—some noise begins this, but it’s not a taunt until after we hear it.

    The rest of this scene also offers a lot of conclusions and interiority with backstory without showing us what actually happens. Dwelling inside the narrator’s mind too much in the opening pages kills the pace. I recommend letting this scene unfold at a slightly quicker pace, and with less framing of Stone. At this point, Stone’s character is fuller than the narrator’s.

    Overall, we need to hear the narrator’s voice more. She/he has very little dialogue in these opening pages. Let them speak, and let them establish their problem more clearly. Hiding the ball too much in your opening pages can be a turnoff for agents and for readers. A great way to gauge how much story to reveal is by studying the openings of books similar to yours in genre and category.

    Best of luck with your revision!

    Melanie Conklin, first five mentor

  5. I can't wait to see how this looks with the images. It's exactly the kind of book my daughter and I enjoy reading.

    You're taking on something very challenging with the time shifts. Some of my favorite books play around with time, so I'm looking forward to how you handle it. It does seem like there are a lot of potential difficulties...

  6. Hi Rebecca,

    I really like your descriptions of the Great Wall. Well done!

    I am a bit confused throughout. I'm not sure where my focus should be -- Does the majority of this story take place in China in May? Or is it at this high school in September? I'm OK with starting it one place and moving to the other, but I need to know where I should put my focus, especially because the earlier China scene doesn't have any sort of inciting incident. How does this connect to the later chapter?

    I would also like to see a little more character development--or at least, the main character's relationships with the other characters. You give us a lot of names in these first five pages; it's tricky to keep them straight. Who is important right now? Narrow your focus and these pages will be much easier to digest.

    I do love the idea of using images! (But yes, do be wary about including them in the query. Perhaps type them out? Or do something like [insert plane ticket here]).

    Looking forward to seeing revisions!


  7. Hey Rebecca,

    I have a critique partner who writes award-winning thrillers, so I’m very excited to read what you’ve done.

    Apparently I'm loquacious. I'm going to have to split this into two parts.

    Part one:

    Just read the super short prologue. Is this a time travel thriller?

    Your description of the Great Wall is great. You say it’s a class trip, but from where? You have an Ameriacan. A Jamaican. A German. A Hispanic and a Brit. This is confusing.

    I’m at the end of chapter one, and it’s a very short chapter. I suggest refocusing on what you need to pull the reader into the story, such as, why are these kids together? Also, this is a thriller and there is no sign of a threat. Thrillers should be thrilling, dangerous and unsettling, like something isn’t right or there's a tension between people that makes the main character uneasy. In this scene, everyone is great. No one is acting oddly. There's no sense of impending doom. Telling me your main character knew her days were numbered doesn’t build tension. Showing someone behaving oddly is what builds tension.

    So, this isn’t a time travel is it? But there is definitely a time issue. Using this kind of story structure can confuse the reader. If you insist on jumping back and forth in your narrative, you need a stronger sense of place. Your main character has to work doublely hard to make sure the reader can follow her thought process.

    Relook at the first paragraph of Chapter 3. You need the dialogue before the description otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

    I have to ask, is your main character’s name China? No one has addressed her by name yet, and the reader doesn’t know. I suggest sneaking her name in as quickly as possible.

    The third paragraph confuses me. I thought the story was about her being with a bunch of kids at the Great Wall, but it's not. She was just remembering a class trip. Does the trip to China have anything to do with what she’s going through now, because she's now with a whole new cast of characters, and the kids we just met aren’t even with her. It makes me wonder why I needed to read the China scene.

  8. Part two:

    Is nightmare a person? It sounds like it, but since she’s thinking all this and not interacting with anyone, it’s hard to tell. I think you need to rethink your approach on introducing characters. I’m having a difficult time following who’s who.

    After reading this part, I think, but I'm not completely positive, that Nighmare is the guy taunting her at the beginning of the chapter? That fact isn’t clear. Strengthen your setting to ground your readers in the present. Take her out of her head and have her interact with the people around her more.

    She’s a martial arts champion? That’s awesome!

    I’m at the end of your entry and I have many questions. First off, what is the danger facing your protag? There is none in these pages. Everything seems normal teen stuff. Class trip. New school. Trying to fit in. Even a bully. Pretty typical. When you labeled this a thriller, you gave your reader a promise that you were going to scare her or at the very least unsettle her.

    I have no idea what your premise is. Since we started the story in China, I have to believe something bad happen there. Someone died, or was maimed, or I don’t know what else, but it has to be bad. If so, her memories wouldn’t be happy ones.

    If the above is your premise, (I really don’t know what else it could be because of what you’ve written so far) then you have choices to make. Do you want the reader to believe she’s innocent when all the evidence points to her? Or do you want the reader to believe she’s guilty, or maybe that she's a high functioning psychopath? Either way, you have a duty to scare the reader one way or the other, and you need to start scaring the reader as quickly as possible. If she didn’t cause the problem, then she has to suspect someone else of doing it and that someone has to follow her to her new school, otherwise, the China scene has no real purpose.

    My suggestion is to really think about what you want your story to be and refocus it on your main character. Have everything happen through her eyes. Engage her in every action. Don’t have her acting like an observer. A thriller is tightly paced and full of suspense. You’ll need to tighten up your story structure to achieve that goal. You have something here, but your focusing on backstory and not on what’s happening to her right now.

    Everything I’ve commented on is meant to help you strengthen your story. Keep what advice you like and ignore the rest. Remember, thrillers are fast paced and filled with danger. Keep your protagonist in the center of the action at all times.

    I’m really interested to see what you do with your story. Have fun!