Sunday, February 5, 2017

February 1st 5 Pages Workshop- Smith

Name: Jamie Rusovick-Smith
Genre: Young Adult historical fantasy
Title: The Burn Kingdom
Mother Nature narrowed her eyes and quirked an eyebrow at her eldest daughter. Azara kept her face composed, her shoulders square, and her head high. Rusted sconces lined the walls of the lair, flickering despite the fact that none of Azara’s sisters rustled through this wing of the cave. Their glow was mildewed over and weak, but it didn’t hide Mother’s disappointment. Her color-changing eyes were proof enough. They glowed yellow, the color of trepidation or annoyance. Stark and vivid against Mother’s glittering, energy-filled skin. She always looked regal, her crown of thorns nestled into her water-like hair and flowing gowns of silk, but she also looked frigid. Like ice and hate and general disgust.
Well, Azara would show her something.
In the near dark, dank cave, Azara took a deep breath, exhaled and raised her hands. The musty air sizzled against her coal lungs, and the resulting smoke tickled her nose. One breath, two. Her palms crackled with fire, burned from deep inside her body, and exploded outward. A massive fireball formed, more than three times Azara’s height in diameter, then crept towards the edges of the space. The fire crawled towards the pockmarked walls, towards the ceiling dripping with stalactites. It smothered nearer and nearer Mother and Grimmer.
A smirk snuck onto Azara’s lips. She could make it even bigger. Make it fill every inch of the underground cave including her sisters’ quarters and the training wings. But then Mother and Grimmer would burn like dried branches, and then Azara would never be given permission to leave the lair.
“How’s that?” Azara cocked her head and opened her eyes wide. Innocent. Not condescending. Much.
Mother inspected the fireball. The silk of her gown wish-wished around her legs as she circled the small sun. She pursed her lips, ran her fingers along the licking edges. “Can you make it burn hotter without expanding the size?”
“Of course.” Azara’s thoughts drifted towards her room. Perhaps she’d give herself an oil bath when this was done. Didn’t she have some—
When Mother clucked her tongue, Grimmer flicked his wrist and the ball vanished in a puff of smoke. Azara’s mouth gaped and she glared at her mentor. The old man grinned right at her, the ends of his mustache tilting up towards his nose, then tipped his head. His long salt and pepper hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but the long end fell over one shoulder when he bowed at her.
Mierda. Azara resisted the urge to stop her foot, but she did fold her arms across her chest. Show off.
“The power is there, but the concentration is not.” Grimmer shrugged. “Easy to dispel when your heart is not in it.”
“Dismal.” Mother crossed the cave floor and glared at Azara as she passed. “I’d expected more of an improvement in your focus by this point. You’re nearly eighteen and—”
“You act as though I’ll have competition when I go to the surface.” Azara blew a lock of raven-black hair from face and followed her mother, lean legs taking long strides to try and keep up. “They have no way to protect themselves, right? Wouldn’t help each other even if they could. So why should I put forth any extra effort when I can do my job without exerting myself?”
Mother whipped around and her red eyes stopped Azara mid-step. “I made you with talent to spare. But that doesn’t give you the right to be lax in your focus. You’ve no idea what the outside world is like.”
Azara pointed at the ceiling and all of the world above her that only Grimmer had told her anything of. “I would know if you’d ever let me out of the lair!”
“Silence.” Mother didn’t have to raise her voice to make her point clear. She held an energy filled hand near Azara’s throat and squeezed. Azara held firm, tried to be brave, but her knees trembled. The energy pressed into her airway. She couldn’t inhale.
“You,” Mother spat, “won’t leave this lair until you are fit to end the world. The only thing standing between you and your duty, is your massive ego.”
Mother released Azara. Her instincts told her to rub her throat, to take several deep breathes, but she didn’t want Mother to know that attack had rattled her.  She didn’t want to seem weak. So she stood statue-still and lowered her eyes to the floor. It was a good thing a girl made of fire couldn’t cry.
Mother turned to Grimmer. “What have you to say for yourself?”
The old man exhaled, tucked a cigar between his teeth, and pulled yards of black fabric around his frame, as he leaned against the wall of the cave. “She has a strong will. Not sure we’ll ever break it.”
Mother huffed. “What sort of mentor are you?”
“A patient one.”
Mother and Grimmer stared daggers at one another then Mother left the room.
Azara let herself exhale then and her shoulders deflated. She pressed her hands into her sides, her fingers warming against her internal heat. This was all Grimmer’s fault. “You didn’t need to embarrass me.”
Grimmer righted himself and walked over to Azara. He blew out a coil of wispy grey smoke, then tipped his head. His grey eyes sparkled even in the dim glow of the sconces. He smelled of cherries and cinders. “You’re not trying hard enough.”
“It’s only because it comes so easy to me. I have no need to try any harder.” Azara turned her citrine eyes on her mentor. The edges of his mouth crinkled, his eyes lost a bit of their sparkle. She felt the change in his posture and the guilt clawed behind her ribs. “But I suppose if I don’t apply myself soon, Mother will have Ria take my place. You’ll have spent all this time training me for nothing.”
Grimmer scoffed. “I wouldn’t worry about that much. Your mother is anxious, to be sure, but she holds to tradition. She’ll not give away your birthright unless she’s given no other choice.” His face held a harsh line, a certain set to his jaw which Azara thought might be grief. Of course… Grimmer might be the most powerful of them all, but he was a man in a Matriarchal society.  
Azara gulped and turned her gaze on the cavernous ceiling. “I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
“You haven’t. Ria on the other hand…” He shook his head.
“Ria.” Azara’s redheaded and deadly younger sister. For all her eagerness, Ria listened even less than Azara and she had a slew of bodies in her wake to prove it. Not that Mother minded the deaths. It was just that Ria had gone and done it without anyone knowing. What if she hadn’t come back to the lair in one piece? What if she had ended the humans without Azara’s help at all? She would have made Azara’s existence— what was the word? Azara shuddered. It didn’t matter. Ria had been stopped. The human God had seen to that…
Grimmer tucked his hands into the folds of his robe and headed towards the mouth of the cave. “Get some rest. You’ll be useless for training tomorrow otherwise.” His robes dragged along the cave floor, hissing and ruffling dust as he vanished into the darkness.
“Useless.” Azara snapped her fingers and sighed. That was the word. Ria had almost made her useless.


  1. Hi Jamie!

    I think the opening does a good job of establishing everything (but I sat at my desk for a while trying to narrow my eyes and quirk an eyebrow at the same time and I'm not sure it's possible, haha), but I was a little confused about some of the description. You mention the sconces, and then Azara's sisters, and then say "their glow" to talk about the sconces, so it took me a second to realize you weren't talking about her sisters.

    I'm assuming Mother is an antagonist, or at least a foil to Azara, but I had trouble connecting with some of the story since her motivation seemed to mostly be "I'm not not very nice." When she started talking about Azara being untrained I started to get it, but that took a turn for me when she lashed out at Grimmer. I would have thought she'd encourage Grimmer, or at least be on his side, if her motivation was to train Azara to the point where she can leave the lair. I hope I'm making sense with this! Obviously I have no idea what's going to happen next, so I could be being super unhelpful.

    Overall I think the concept of this is really intriguing, and I'm not even usually a Fantasy person. I love the ominous ending as well. :)

    I hope this helped a little!

  2. Hey Jamie,

    Wow, what a great idea you have here! I can't wait to dive into the pages with you and give you a new perspective on things. I'm intrigued on your concept of Mother Nature and the role of her daughters, and think it's great you're writing about a matriarchal society. Can't wait to see it unfold.

    Your descriptions are amazing. They really give the reader an exact idea of what everything looks and feels like. I do think, though, that some of the description can be tightened, allowing for more story to take place within the first five. We have very few pages we can use to impress an agent, and although description is very important in high fantasy, we also need to make sure the bones of the story keep our attention. Also, your genre is YA Historical Fantasy, and I was hoping sometime during the first five to get an idea of what time period this was taking place.

    I love Azara's voice. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind who she is. Her voice is clear, and her attitude shines. Great job.

    I was a little confused about the relationship between Azara and Grimmer. At one point she seems to loathe him, angry at his attempts to outshine her, and then at another, she seems to melt under his authority. It could be totally subjective, but for me it didn't quite add up.

    I don't like Mother Nature. At all. Not sure if that's a good thing or bad. :) If she's our antagonist, then it's great.

    I love the way you ended the first five. The line where she clicks, remembering the word that failed her made me smile.
    I'm so interested in this concept and found myself thinking about this world you've created long after I read the pages. Can't wait to read what you do with the revisions!

    AL Noelle

  3. Hi Jamie,

    I think the best quality of these opening pages are the mood and setting that you convey. I easily felt like I was in this cave with Azara and Mother Nature. I think this is due to your description and your dialogue. Both were effective in showing and not telling. I especially liked when Azara created the fireball, and the line “cherries and cinders.”

    I do think there might be a bit too much description in your opening paragraph. After I am pulled in by finding out Mother Nature is angry about something, I feel that it takes a bit longer than necessary to get to what’s going on. I think it is the physical description of Mother Nature that draws things out, and maybe the mention of the sisters. I think that description might be more effective elsewhere in these pages. Get right into the action.

    The voice feels spot on to me. It is clear how Azara feels about her circumstances and about what is happening in this moment, and when she has the emotional reaction to being grabbed by the throat, I am emotionally drawn in.

    I have heard that it is best not to have too many questions as part of a narrative. The paragraph about Ria has a few questions in a row. I wonder if you may be able to restructure that phrasing, or include only one of those questions. I think the first one could be taken out.

    I would love to read more of this story.

    I hope this helps.

    All the best,

  4. Hi Jamie!

    Thanks for sharing this story. I love the idea of a matriarchal society led by Mother Nature herself. The idea of her having daughters is intriguing too. I did like Mother as she is strong; her anger contains real consequences. I like that it’s in close third person as well. We get the benefit of being in Azara’s head, but with latitude to see beyond her limited perspective.

    I’d like to know more about the relationship between Grimmer and Mother. I get the sense that Mother is expecting more progress, wanting Azara to be more ready than she is. What are the stakes? WHY does Azara need to be ready? What will happen if she’s not? What will happen if her mission fails?

    What is her mission? You don’t need to state this, but it would nice to get a sense of it, a clue. Does Azara want this? It’s her birthright, but is it something she desires? If she wants it, why is she fighting it? She seems kind of lazy. Is there a reason for that? Would she rather do something else, or is she just too confident? Because she’s skilled and smart and surrounded by those not exactly as skilled and smart, is it her confidence and arrogance that is her greatest antagonist? She’s clearly eager to leave the lair. Is it to complete the mission or just to get out and experience more of the world? I’d like to get a better sense of her motivation.

    I also have questions about whether Azara and Ria are forces we know. Are they hurricanes, wild fires, tornadoes, etc.? Do they have the purpose to destroy? Or do they have another purpose? I know that’s a lot to ask for these pages. I’m not really asking you to revise to include answers, but maybe to know which questions are sparked by the pages, to be able to tweak and form the answers in upcoming pages.

    Overall, I loved how easy it was to follow your story. Often I find fantasy to be confusing, trying to find the story within the folklore and world-building. You have the right elements, but they draw me in rather than frustrate me. Well done!

    Looking forward to more,

  5. Hi!

    Thanks so much for being brave enough to share your words. I love so much of the world building here--especially the physical/magical attributes these characters have. It really sinks the reader into another world and lets them know we are squarely in a fantastical place. The question I have, though, is why this is labeled as historical fantasy? To me, when I see the label historical fantasy, I expect to be in a real, historical place that happens to have fantastical elements. Maybe that's coming later? But if we're not specifically in a historical period (think something like Susan Dennard's Something Strange and Deadly or Megan Shepherd's The Madman's Daughter), you might want to simply label this fantasy. I know it's a small thing, but it will matter when you get to the query phase and you're pitching this to agents or editors.

    The other thing I'd say is echoing what others here have mentioned--I know five pages isn't much, but I want a clearer sense in these opening pages of what Azara's main goal in life/in practicing her power is. What happens if she fails? What's standing in her way? I guess one of my big questions is about her "entering the world"-- is this something she really wants? Something that's just expected of her? Something that absolutely needs to happen?

    Finally, you do such a great job with the descriptions here, but I would be careful not to overdo things. If we are focused through Azura's perspective (that is, we're seeing things kind of through her eyes, even though it's not first person), think about how someone would think of herself. So too many mentions of raven hair, slender limbs--when they are talking about *her*--almost seems like odd details for her to mention. Of course you want your reader to be right there in the moment--and you do a great job of that!--just be sure that you don't overwhelm the moment with too many adjectives or body descriptions.

    Really interesting premise and characters though. Can't wait to see what you do with them!


  6. Ooooo, I like this! Your descriptions are vivid and the set up is very intriguing!

    My main concern is that it took a little while for me to fully get into the story. I think it's because you start with the mother. We see her and the cave and her description before we see anything about Azara. Add to that the fact that Mother Nature is popularly seen as a concept instead of a person, and it gives the first little bit of the story more of a distant feel. Like an allegory instead of a story. Azara seems like a rich character, and her internal and external conflicts about this test are substantial and very present, so I'd kind of like to get into her head right away so I can settle in.

    Also I got a little thrown by the mention of "the human God." Humans have a lot of deities, and given we also have Mother Nature and a girl who's supposed to end the world, it made me a bit confused about what kind of mythology we're dealing with. You don't need a worldbuilding dump by any means, but some more context would be helpful. (Really, all we really need to know is that her sister was stopped, if you want to explain how in more detail at a later point, that's fine.)

    I very much enjoyed reading this, and I'm looking forward to your revision!