Saturday, January 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Farkas

Samantha Farkas
Young Adult Historical Fantasy

I moved as though I walked on glass.

Don't look down. This far back, the cobblestones were covered only in caked mud and bits of straw. My slippers grasped for purchase all the same. Hurrying here, Aurélie had slipped and sprained her wrist, but that was nothing compared to what could happen now. With every step, the ground beneath me seemed to crack, and I feared that soon it would shatter completely.

"Can you see?" hissed Aurélie, gripping her wrist. We were the same age, but my stepsister was a head shorter than me, and the crowd was so tightly packed that it smothered her.

I nodded. I had a clear view of the scaffold.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the timepiece my father had given me three days earlier. Just before the National Guard led him from our house, he had placed it in my palm. "All we have is time, Camille," he said, folding my fingers around the silver. "Don't waste it."

The ticking calmed me. I needed this. One minute more was another minute in which my father could be pardoned. The Committee would realize there had been a mistake. God--somebody--would interfere. Please.

I saw him then, mounting the stairs to the scaffold.

They had stripped him of his coat, waistcoat, even his shoes, so that he wore only a white shirt and culottes, and his hair had been chopped to the nape of his neck. Beside me, Madame whimpered and pressed her handkerchief to her lips.

A guard said something to him and he laughed. Laughed.

I tightened my grip on the timepiece. It was still tick, tick, tick-ing. He could be pardoned still. Lefévre would step forward. If anyone could help, it was my father's best friend, whose influence extended beyond wealth and class. He would stop it. He had to.

My father didn't resist as the executioner tied him to the board. Lowered it.

No. This wasn't real. It was an illusion, a nightmare. I would wake up to find that I had dozed off in front of the fireplace again. My father would be sitting in his favorite chair, his expression amused as he glanced up from his notebook to tell me I had soot on my face.

It isn't real. It isn't real. It isn't--

Later, I would find that the timepiece had stopped at 11:58.

The precise moment the blade fell.


Somewhere a clock strikes midnight just as I reach the Place de la Revolution. Instinctively, I reach for my father's timepiece. It stopped working over a year ago; still I take comfort in the familiar notches and grooves. Very few people who might recognize me are left, but even so, I keep my head bowed and quicken my pace. I don't know why we had to meet here of all places, but Jean-Paul insisted, and I am not in a position to argue.

I stop just before the bridge that extends toward the Palais Bourbon. Every few seconds, I glance back at the public square, where the guillotine winks in the moonlight. It seems to get closer every time I look. It has been weeks since the last public execution--months since Robespierre and Saint-Just's demise--but this remains a heavy, haunted place, and every breath strangles me.

Tap. Tap. I turn to see Jean-Paul approaching with his walking stick, which he calls a constitution and I call a bludgeon. In the four months I've known him, I have never seen him without it. "You're late."

"Something came up."

I see now that his coat and culottes and streaked with blood. "Who?"

He takes a moment to answer, which makes me wonder if even he knows. From what I've gathered, Jean-Paul Grenier doesn't ask question. His source, whomever that may be, gives him names and he listens. "Informant. Admitted to spying on the Comtesse du Moreau."

Before or after you beat him? I nearly ask, but the truth is I don't care. I'm not here to talk about Jean-Paul's vengeance. I'm here to talk about mine. "Do you have it?"

He retrieves a small vial from his pocket. It's filled with a clear liquid--mort par rêves, a cousin to belladonna. A single drop will create a powerful sleeping tonic; more, and you have a poison that kills swiftly, silently, painlessly. Incredibly expensive and nearly impossible to procure.

"Thank you." I pass him a few assignats. It's not much--not half of what this is worth--but it's all I can spare at the moment. I don't know how Jean-Paul acquires the mort par rêves--whether he pays with the assignats he pilfers from his victims or just steals it outright. I've never asked.

He leans forward on his constitution. "Will you do it this time?"

"I don't know what you mean." I know exactly what he means. His lips twist into a vicious smirk. This is the third time he has brought me mort par rêves, something that--when used properly--need only be used once.

"Maybe you would prefer this," he says, and pulls out a dagger.

I stare at it. I have thought long and hard about how I am going to do it; the truth is I never intended to use the poison.

Thibault Lefévre will die by blade. Just like my father.

Still, I don't reach for the dagger. It isn't showy by any means, but it feels like a weapon for royalty--a baroness, at least. I am just a servant girl; I want Lefévre to know that. I want him to look at me and see the knots in my hair, the dirt under my nails, the smudges on my face. When the time comes, I imagine I will make like Charlotte Corday, who murdered Marat with a kitchen knife.

Noting my hesitation, Jean-Paul flips the dagger over so the blade catches the moonlight. With his pronounced widow's peak and clear eyes, he is striking in a way that unsettles me. He is too sharp; he has no softness to him. Was he always like this? Or did the violence chisel away at him until he was all jagged edges? "You ought to take it, Salomé. It will make your vengeance so much sweeter."

"I don't need it."

"You do." He holds it out to me. Even in the shadows, the dagger shines so bright that i can see my reflection distorted in the steel. "Do you know what it's made of? Go on, take a guess."

When I don't answer, he cocks his head in the direction of the square.

I turn and look at the guillotine. 


  1. Hi Samantha,

    Um, can I say, love love love, the time period and the details!

    I am not normally into prologues, but this one is immediate and full of action. It also leaves me with a hint about time, and where we are going in this novel. I have questions, though, and depending on if the questions are accurate ones, I might have some confusion: if this is historical fantasy, I see the historical really clearly! But: I don’t see the fantasy in your prologue.

    The clock stopping hints at it. But I do want a stronger taste of fantasy elements in the prologue too. At least, this reader does.

    In Ch 1, I would like to see a few more mood enhancing details included to see the tone for this “one year later” novel. So, while the narrator mentions no one should recognize her, I would like for her to be more wary, and more aware of the people around her. Give us a little detail that makes us worry about her, even if she dismisses it.

    I love the detail about the dagger! But: I’m still not feeling the fantasy elements here. And that might be my major concern/complaint about your first 5 pages!

    Looking forward to seeing your revision!


  2. Hi Samantha. All in all, I think this is excellent. Well written. Wonderful descriptions and world-building. I'm not sure you need the prologue, however. I think the important bits could be worked into the first chapter fairly easily. If you want to keep it in, I think the opening sentences regarding the ground afford too much importance on the cobblestone. It also sounds to me like your main character is all alone. Changing "With every step, the ground beneath me seemed to crack, and I feared that soon it would shatter completely." to "With every step, the ground beneath US seemed to crack, and I feared that soon it would shatter completely." But again, the focus should be on the scaffold, not the ground. This sentence, "I see now that his coat and culottes and streaked with blood." Should that be "ARE streaked with blood"? Also, you don't need "I see now." Read this article on filtering:

    Regarding Jean-Paul, I need more description of him. Is he older than Camille? Younger? She's a servant girl but she treats him like a subordinate. What's his position? That will help me get a better grip on their relationship. Other than these minor suggestions, you did a really fine job. I look forward to reading more.

  3. I really liked the first scene. I felt like I had a good sense for the point of view of the MC and her hopes and fears.

    I was surprised that the next scene was in France. It made me wonder if both scenes were in France or if she moved in between. If the first scene is in France also, perhaps you could drop in a couple words which would make that more clear.

    I think the MC and her motives were mostly clear in this scene too, but I was confused about why she was buying the poison and not using it. And why she did not take the dagger if she wanted her victim to die by a knife blade.

    Overall, I think your first five pages are strong and look forward to reading again next week.


  4. The historical details are beautiful--you've set the stage in a way that drew me in and gave me a powerful sense of the MC and her motives.

    I love the powerful, fast pace of the story, the lush details, and the clear way you've mapped out the space. Normally it's hard for me to visualize things, but I could see it very clearly.

    I think since you're using italics for the French, you should minimize using italics to emphasize words, but that's obviously a very minor critique.

  5. Hi Samantha,

    Well-done! This is truly a well-plotted, well-paced, well-characterized, and beautifully-written opening. Honestly, there is very little room for improvement here, but there are a few additional bits of information that could ground the reader and avoid confusion.

    1) In the prologue, which works and illuminates the first chapter perfectly, the initial image is a little blurry. At a minimum, I'd suggest inserting the words cobblestones and scaffold in the first sentence to give us an immediate visual and draw the reader in even more quickly, and I would also suggest using her worry of slipping on the cobblestones to bring us immediately into the Place de la Revolution and the time period more firmly. As is, we don't know where we are, and we don't get the sense of the crowd right away, and therefore the danger of slipping on cobblestones doesn't appear to be very great given the horror of what she is there to observe, not now that she has reached the square. Insert the name of the location, and also let the reader know that Amelie fell en route, along the twisting alleys of Paris as they'd hurried from XXX. As is, it doesn't seem likely that she'd be worried about slipping--until you realize that if she slips and falls in the kind of bloodthirsty crowd gathered for the executions that she could be trampled, or at the very least, fail to see what she is desperate not to see. To make her even more likable, I would suggest having her worry about Amelie's safety more than her own as well. In addition, consider using Garde Nationale in the prologue in place of National Guard. The translation is clear enough not to cause confusion, and it helps to set the place and time period without inviting confusion.
    2) Give us your MC's emotions more honestly in the prologue overall. Let us feel her desperation--not in an overwritten way--but in a natural way. Don't overlook opportunities by using weak modifiers for nouns and ideas. "I needed this," for example. Is the ticking really going to calm her when her father is about to be executed? Or is it the reminder of what her father said, that every minute counts. The prose would actually be stronger by eliminating the "I needed this" and letting the clarifying thought follow the calming thought immediately. Look for other places where the emotion is diminished and give us a few more details that show her state of mind.
    3) Clarify your use of "Madame" -- you give us no description and no explanation of who she is, or for that matter, any other indication in the piece that she exists.
    4) In the first chapter, I love your imagery of the guillotine getting closer each time she looks, but overall, her feelings about the place feel generic rather than personal. Do you want to consider adding a little bit more here? Giving us that little nudge to remember that this is where her father died a little sooner? It might make the impact later stronger, and also add a bit of menace about why Jean-Paul wanted to meet there.
    5) Make her first dialogue with Jean-Paul clearer about who is speaking, and give us a better indication of his age and appearance earlier. Otherwise, your characterization of him is great.

    REALLY looking forward to seeing your tweaks. This is SO, SO good! Brava!



  6. Hey Samantha,

    I’m so excited to read your YA historical fantasy! I don’t think publishers publish enough of them, but then I’m a history nut, so this is right up my alley.

    Sorry, my comments are a bit lengthy. Don't freak out. This was a great entry, but I have to submit them in two parts. Let's get started.

    Part one:

    You used a prologue! I have absolutely nothing against prologues. Some people do. This one is fine. The one area I would work on is grounding the reader in time and place. While I read your scene, I couldn’t find any defining point that said “France” or anything that said 17th century. Few people know this, but France stopped using the guillotine in 1977 and only stopped using it publicly in 1939. You read that right. They were a head-lopping society. So, I didn’t know what to think until I read Robespierre’s name in the first chapter. Make sure you use the surroundings of the time. Horse dung on the ground. A woman’s overly large panniers temporarily obstructing their passage…stuff like that to set the stage, and make sure you mention something significant in the background, like Notre Dame or some other landmark associated with Paris at that time, and frame it with meaning since this is a YA and most readers won’t be familiar with Paris. Whatever you do, don’t spend a ton of time. Setting should be seamless, melting into the background of your story to give it the weight of authenticity.

    I love, love, love the last few lines of the prologue.

    So, I’m going to assume her father was a wealthy nobleman. That would make her from that same class. I’m saying that because Robespierre went after them with a vengeance. (Part of my family fled France to America because of him) If I’m right, then I’d like to see a bit more of the situation she’s in now. Are her hands cracked from working? Are her clothes a little threadbare or has she worn her best dress? Are her shoes new or old?

    Is the public square she’s walking through the same square where her father died? If so, it would make this moment heavier for her. She strangles on her breath, not just because it’s haunted by the guillotine’s victims, but it’s haunted by the memory of her father’s death.

  7. Part two:

    I highly suggest you put the paragraph where he retrieves the vial of poison as dialogue from him. She’s a teenager. How does she know this? Have the man tell her what it is. By him stating its danger, it heightens tension.

    Okay, I see why you had her know about the poison, but if the poison is so expensive and she only gives him a few coins, why does he hand it over? Wouldn’t she hold her breath and wonder if he would accept her money? But then again, why would he? Especially if this is the third time he’s given her expensive poison that is hard to come by. If he’s done it three times, it can’t be that difficult to come by.

    I adore the fact that the dagger is made from the same steel as the guillotine.

    Okay, so I’ve come to the end of these five pages. I’m interested, but I have questions. Why do I care about this girl and her plan for vengeance? Who is she exactly? What is her family connection to the revolution? Or maybe there wasn’t, and her father got swept up in it through no fault of his own? Was he a loyal servant? Was she being groomed to be something special and now her life has been turned upside-down? It feels like there is a piece of drama missing I need to understand the gravity of her situation.

    Since Robespierre is dead and the revolution is calming down, the tension in this scene feels a little flat, that’s why we need more information up front about her and her place in the world now. If you slip in who she was before her father’s death, and who she is now, that will help. It doesn’t have to be much. If she was wealthy, then when the girls are fighting for a place in the crowd, just mention the silk of her dress or the streak of dirt on the lace of her cuff her maid will throw fits when she sees it. Anything that contrasts her wealth and privelege beside the poverty and horror of the occasion.

    If she was just a servant, then have her rebelling against the injustice of what is happening. Why her father? Could she have done more to help him? Would she be next?

    These are quick questions you may wish to answer in your story that are meant to deepen her POV. As a reader, I want to connect with her, and although I pity her and what’s happening to her family, I have yet to connect to her.

    What you have here is really awesome, but the emotion is missing. That’s one of the most important yet hardest parts of writing. You’re almost there. Just go a little deeper and connect what’s happening on the page to the emotion of who she was, who she now is and what she’s about to do.

    This is an historical fantasy. You’ve hinted at the fantasy part. Time stopped when her father died. Now use the crap out of the setting that’s around your character, because people read historicals to live in another time and place. So let us see, hear, feel, smell and taste the Paris of 1700s. It doesn’t take much. Just a drop of setting and the like here and there as I mentioned above.

    I’m so excited for you. This story is going to be really fun.

    Everything I’ve commented on is meant to help you further your story. Keep what you want and ignore the rest. Have fun and I can’t wait to see what you do next.


  8. Hi Samantha,

    Thanks so much for your pages! I really enjoyed reading them!

    Overall, I think your first draft is great. Your writing is strong. I like the setting a lot. I'm really eager to read on and discover the answers to some of the intriguing questions you've posed in these first five pages. So well done!!!!

    I think there are a few things you should focus on for round two:

    -- As one of the other commenters mentioned, there are some strong feelings about prologues out there. I, personally, am not a huge fan of them. And I'm sure there are some agents and editors out there who feel the same way. So I'd at least consider starting your MS at Chapter One. I think the information you're sharing in the prologue is all relevant and, since the action of the prologue isn't in the distant past or a distant place, I think it'd be a fairly straightforward matter to integrate it into chapter 1.

    -- I really wanted to feel more emotional depth from your main character. She seems a little detached when approaching the scaffold her father will be executed on. I'd imagine she'd be practically bursting and not feeling like anything could calm her -- especially not the passing of the minutes. And throughout, it feels like you could make more use of the intimacy of a first-person narrator to get us inside her head (and heart).

    -- I feel like I'm a bit of a broken record here, as I say this almost every month on this workshop, but you might want to think about precisely where you start the story. You have so many nice moments in these pages, I could easily think of a handful of different places you could start -- with the guillotine falling, with the father's laugh, the father being lead up the stairs, the streaks of blood on JP's clothes, the dagger made from the blade that killed her dad (so awesome!), with you MC's decision to use the blade. I think any one of those would be more gripping than starting with the girls walking. And it would get you into the meat of the story faster.

    So the bottom line here is I think you're a talented writer. I think you have a good story to tell. Now it's a matter of getting all the great material you've created in these well-written first five pages into the best shape possible so it knocks every agent and, eventually, editor you send it to right out of her chair.

    Can't wait to see the next round!!!

    All best,
    Rob Vlock
    1st 5 Pages mentor