Sunday, January 15, 2017

January Workshop Revision 1 -- Allen

Name: Rebecca J. Allen
Genre: YA Thriller
Title: In A Flash


The door at the top of the stairs opened and the thug started gun-first down the steps. On his face was a cold, calculating smile, like he was in no rush to kill me. After all, I had no way out.

“You’re not supposed to be down here, little girl.”

I froze, half-way between the basement and the first floor, immobilized by fear and indecision. I had a gun in my hand. It was cold and heavy and deadly.

I’d picked it up to keep from getting shot in the back, never planning to actually use it. The thought of firing it repulsed me even now. 

How had my life gotten so twisted that firing a gun at another human seemed like a reasonable choice? Possibly the only choice if I wanted to live.

I glanced behind me at the dimly lit basement. I did not want to be stuck down there with his beefy frame blocking the only exit. Raising my hands, I pointed the barrel of the gun at his gut. My hands shook.

He took another step toward me.

Please don’t make me pull the trigger. Just let me go!

It wasn’t just my life on the line. If I didn’t stop this man, he would destroy Seth. If not by killing him outright, then certainly by turning everything he’d built into a tool for theft; keep it from ever making a difference in the world.

But if I pulled the trigger, I’d be taking another person’s life. Could I live with that?

Chapter 1

I squeezed through the crowded halls, silent while chatter filled the air around me. Jokes were lobbed over my head; jibes ricocheted off the walls around me so I wouldn’t swipe them as they swished by, degrade them by smiling when, obviously, they weren’t meant for my amusement. After a full week, Stamford High was no less alien than it had been on my first day.

I was no more impressed by my new classmates than they were by me, but my opinion didn’t matter. I was one, not the crowd. The newbie, not a queen bee. 

These days, I was only happy when I turn myself inside-out and went back. Only a few months. But thousands of miles from where I stood now, to another life.

I shook my head. Not now. When I got to homeroom I could retreat inside for a moment, harvest enough happiness from my past to make it through a few classes. Now, I needed to keep my eyes open and avoid confrontation. I needed to pretend to fit in.

My eyes locked on the disposable water bottle the guy in front of me pitched into a trash can without even breaking his stride. An image flashed to mind, a much older guy who’d gone down our Shanghai street every day, digging out recyclables from the trash to earn what he could from turning them in. His bicycle-drawn cart was always filled higher than his head with bags threatening to burst.

You’re not there anymore, Avery. Get it together.

I tried, but my gaze locked on a poster for the homecoming dance. This dance was the topic of intense discussion between classes. Who planned to ask whom? Who had already asked and been shot down? With what level of maliciousness? It could have been the subplot for a Mean Girls movie.

I rolled my shoulders and shook it off.

Aberforth & Co. clothes were all around me. Half the school wore them, and not the basics, the stuff that worked fall, winter and spring. The popular crowd pulled their wardrobe straight from the cover of the new catalog. Blaze orange and mustard yellow, the “in” colors this season, were everywhere, making me want to poke my eyes out. I’d boycotted Aberforth forever.

I drew in a deep breath, and huffed it out. Rid yourself of that which does not serve you. Head down, eyes straight ahead, I plowed forward. Nine months. One hundred and seventy-four days of Stamford High and I’d be done.

It felt like forever. I had no chance of being accepted here. And the thing that had undone was my last class trip. 

On the first day of school, my L.A. teacher announced that we’d see a play at the newly reopened Shakespeare theater. She’d tried to be welcoming, asking if I’d seen a play there. Asking what kind of class trips I’d gone on at Shanghai American. I made the mistake of thinking that was an easy question, and that my answer would be interesting.

I was wrong. It wasn’t.

“A class trip to the Great Wall of China? Who does that? What planet are you from?” The question came from the captain of the Lacrosse Team. The guy who’d been flirting with me until Mrs. Ackerman called him out to start class.

He wasn’t flirting now. He was now intent on torturing me for the rest of the year.

That day last spring had been so perfect. Standing at the top of the wall looking down at mile after mile of hand-wrought stonework. Imposing…monumental…breath-taking. Towers rising every half-mile as the wall wound along the mountain ridge. Ten-feet wide where we stood, thinning to a pathway in the distance, then a ribbon of stone before fading into the mountain.

All my favorite people were with me. Stone, my best friend, Usain, my first real boyfriend, Stephan, Renato and Jade. Six classmates, five nationalities. The opposite of Stamford, where everyone wanted to think they were unique but really did their best to conform.

And, in complete opposition to kismet, there he was, the captain of the Lacrosse Team. His eyes sought me out through the tight press of people in the hall.

“China’s got her swagger on today. Lookin’ good, girl!” His jab turned the blood in my veins to ice, freezing my hips mid-step.

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 stream of people pressed into a crowd behind me. He 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?” He’d said it with that same self-assured smirk on his face. Nice way to make the new girl 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. 

This guy was a nightmare, but I would beat him. 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.


  1. Hi Rebecca,

    I like how you brought the thrill to the front!

    One suggestion I might have is to work with time instead of with “prologue”. So maybe add a date in instead: January 14, 2017.

    And then chapter one can also have a date line and orientate us: did we go back two days, two weeks, two months? Or sorry, how far forward have we travelled?!

    Just an idea for clarity.

    I think you end the first five on a great note! It’s really sharp and makes me want to keep reading.

    But what I think you need to keep working on is the middle part. I like how now Avery is in scene and she’s thinking about the past and the present together, but can you put us in a scene? Can this thinking be tied to something more active? It would help with the pacing of Chapter 1 and with getting us feeling like Avery is someone we want to watch. Maybe you could have her “stuck” in the same way she’s stuck in the prologue? Of course, there are no guns in sight, but she has to make a tough decision?

    Of course, these are only ideas. This is your book!

    Looking forward to your pitch and tweaks on this!


  2. Hey Rebecca,

    I'm excited to read what you've done! Sorry, but my comments are in two parts...again.

    Part One:

    I see you’ve added a prologue. Several of the other entrants have as well. I’m not sure if you saw my comment about using a prologue. I don't mind them, but some agents and editors (and readers) despise them. Use one at your own risk.

    Let’s get to this!

    Your protag has a gun. You say she picked it up because she didn’t want to get shot in the back. This begs some serious questions. Where was the gun? Who would leave a gun lying around for anyone to find and use? It’s illegal to leave one lying around and it’s irresponsible. You’ll get dinged on that. Now, if the gun is from the “thug” then you’ve got some more questions, as in: How did she get the gun? How thuggy could he be if she could take it from him?

    It’s just your luck you’ve got a mentor this month who has a conceal and carry license. Sorry, but guns are a serious matter and they should never be used lightly, in real life or in fiction. You’ve got to make it believable or you’ll lose readers.

    Now we come to the fact that she headed down to the basement, a place with only one entrance, which means it’s also how she has to exit. Why would she do that if she knew someone with a gun was in her house? If your intent is to trap her, you can easily do that in an upstairs bedroom.

    If you insist on using the basement, then there has to be a really good reason for her to go down there and you have to tell the reader why. No hinting. It has to be a declarative statement, such as: I have to get to the basement. Steven was only six and I couldn’t leave him. I’d die before I did that.”

    And yes, it’s got to be a big reason such as death because your main character is holding a gun. She’s going to use the gun, which means she’s willing to take someone’s life to protect another life (and at this point, the assumption is that the thug is a regular, everyday human and not some mythical creature coming at her). The threat of imminent death is the only acceptable reason to kill someone. Seriously, I can’t think of another reason.

    So she’s got the gun and pointing it at the human thug who’s advancing on her. She needs to say to him, “Please don’t make me pull the trigger. Just let me go!”

    Why? You can’t just shoot someone. You have to give them an opportunity to leave.

    So, with that said, your second to the last paragraph is problematic. She has to believe the only outcome of the Thug’s presence will be Seth’s death. I don’t care at this moment what Seth has created. If it get’s stolen, well that sucks, but it sounds like whatever he created won’t hurt anyone physically, but that it will steal from them. Bummer, but that is not a high enough risk to justify killing the thug.

    So, what all that means is that you’ll have to raise the stakes to the highest mark in order for her to shoot the bad guy.

    Let’s talk sentence structure. You wrote “Jokes were lobbed over my head; jibes ricocheted off the walls around me so I wouldn’t swipe them as they swished by, degrade them by smiling when, obviously, they weren’t meant for my amusement.” This is a complex sentence. I understand what you’re trying to do, but you have some repetition in it that isn’t necessary. Tightening sentences takes time, but it’s time well spent. Let’s tighten this one: “Jokes flew over my head, ricocheting off the walls around me. I ignored them all, unwilling to risk embarrassment if I got caught smiling at a joke not meant for me.”

  3. Part Two:

    The sentence: “I was only happy when I turn myself inside-out and went back.” sounds paranormal. I don’t think you mean for it to, though. What exactly are you trying to say?

    I like the water bottle image.

    I don’t understand why she’s boycotting the clothing store. Within that paragraph, she sounds jealous more than anything else.

    You wrote: “And the thing that had undone was my last class trip.” I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here.

    It’s now I find out where Stamford high is, in LA. It would be nice to see it when you first talk about Stamford high.

    I don’t have a problem with the guy bullying her (please give him a name here), and you’d done a great job describing him, but I think you need to adjust the sentence about him being intent on torturing her for the rest of the year. Why does she think that on the first day? She has no experience with the guy so she can’t know that will happen.

    Make sure you say what wall she was standing on and where.

    You have her remembering two people giving her advice, one right after the other. If possible, I’d split that up more. It feels repetitious, and then when you repeat what the lacrosse guy said, I become even more sensitive to the repetition. There isn’t a really good reason to repeat what he says verbatim, so I’d adjust that.

    So, I think you still have a bit too much backstory in this. It’s hard for me to understand what’s going on in the present. I know you like the China description of the Great Wall (it’s lovely), but I don’t think this is the place for it. We don’t need to know about her “China” friends. They aren’t there and in the context of this moment, they don’t matter. This is about her being bullied and how she’s going to respond. Are these kids from China going to show up soon? Is she going to have a phone call or Skype any of them? If so, that’s when you introduce them. Other than that, I wouldn’t go there because it muddies the story that’s happening at the moment.

    You’ve got some great stuff happening. The trick is to narrow your focus. What are you writing about? Is it about how she’s done this horrible thing and she’s running from it? I think that’s what you’re trying to do. If so, yes, China is important, but not until it rears its ugly head by way of someone from China showing up and adding on a huge threat, or about her using force on this guy and really hurting him and then her secret comes out and she’s ostracized even more—though I’m not sure that can happen since it appears as if she has no friends, so how can one be ostracized more if one is already ostracized?

    Ask yourself, what is at stake for Avery? It isn’t clear. Her life seems pretty crappy. Look at your black moment which is near the end of your story. That point has to be lower than what’s going on here, unless you’re writing a life-sucks-and-then-you-die story. If not, then you’ll need to refocus your plot.

    Keep at it. You’re doing great and I can’t wait to see what you do with this story.


  4. Hi Rebecca. I agree with the other comments. I don't really see any connection between the prologue and chapter one. Did this happen before the first full week at Stamford High? After? I also wasn't sure if the narrator in the prologue is the same narrator in chapter one. The two sections seems like they came from different books, the tone was so different. I found myself much more intrigued by the paragraph about her smiling at her defeated opponent at the Shanghai Martial Arts Tournament than I was the prologue with the gun-wielding thug. What if you ditched the prologue and begin chapter one with her smiling at the students who were teasing her? "I gave them 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." That makes her seem dangerous. That has me hooked.

  5. Hi Rebecca,

    I don't have a vendetta against prologues, but I'm always wary when they start later on in the story. It feels a bit gimmicky.

    At this point, Chapter 1 is a little meandering. Can you streamline? There's a lot of meandering (usually with backstory) that draws me out of the narrative and makes it hard to feel grounded. I think you can accomplish this by having Avery take on a more active role. At this point, she doesn't really do anything other than walk to class and reminisce about China. Give her something to do, some snappy dialogue, something that keeps us close to her and invested in her story.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for sharing your revision with us!

    Overall, I can tell I'm reading a thriller, and that it's definitely YA. That's a good thing! But beyond that, I feel I am still waiting for the story to start, even after five full pages.

    The first element that stood out to me was the lack of dialogue. Is the main character mute? If she is, then show us. If she is not, then she should definitely speak within the first five pages, if not the first one-two. Dialogue is one of the best ways to show us a character's personality. A good place to start is with your italicized interior thoughts--I suggest switching those to dialogue. Let your character have a say!

    Beyond dialogue, we are also dealing with two scenes that do not quite feel connected yet. The opening scene establishes the thriller genre, but we need more to go on to tunderstand how it fits into the big picture--a clue that we can easily hold on to, or that we understand will make sense shortly. Does this happen years earlier? Is it a flash-forward? Without a clue, it reads as disorienting as flipping to a random scene in the middle of a book. Now, what is working here is that we have a scene: a distinct setting, a conflict, and even the hint of a goal. We will need more to make this scene work, and especially to justify opening the story with it.

    The second scene provides a lot of backstory and interior thought, but there is virtually no action. The scene needs to be active and your protagonist needs to be pursuing a goal from the opening page. I'd recommend printing these pages out and highlighting what is action, what is interior thought, and what is dialogue. Setting can also be highlighted, but don't break it down much farther than that. There should be a balance of these different elements, but in the second scene we have a lot of interior thought overwhelming the scene. What is the plot point in this scene? What is the conflict? Get us there sooner.

    Finally, I'd like to address showing versus telling, which I know can be frustrating sometimes! There's a bit too much telling in these pages, though. Some telling is fine as it develops the protagonist's voice, but at the word level we need to be shown rather than told. A good rule of thumb is, am I describing or am I concluding? Here's an example:

    "I froze, half-way between the basement and the first floor, immobilized by fear and indecision. I had a gun in my hand. It was cold and heavy and deadly."

    by fear and indecision: what does that feel like? Can you give us a metaphor or describe how it physically feels so that we come to this conclusion on our own? make US feel it.

    cold and heavy and deadly: cold as what? How heavy? And what does deadly FEEL like? Does it have a smell? Listing these qualities has less effect than allowing us to experience the horror and self-disgust of handling a weapon. Push yourself to root us in the moment with unique descriptive details.

    I know that sometimes writing can feel like you're going in circles, but this piece has evolved significantly. Stay focused on the goal: tell us your STORY. Allow us to connect with Avery as a person and an active teller of her tale.

    Best of luck!