Saturday, March 4, 2017

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Bryan

Name: PJ Bryan
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Title: Torchveil

Opal stood at the center of an angry mob. Smudges of dirt covered her cheeks and tattered skirt. Her curly brown hair was flattened on one side. But it was the expression she wore that defined her; squinted eyes and a pouty lower lip which she now chewed as she thought. Her raised brow and distant stare revealed she was not paying attention to the kids laughing at her, the adults yelling at her, or Ms Clattenrot’s public scolding. She was lost in a puzzle; a mystery. Who was the odd man in the hat? Did he control those beasts or was he merely watching the show? Strange things happened to Opal but none as strange as this morning. While she often saw unexplainable things and imagined her drawings came to life, this attack was nothing she would ever have dreamed. Yet now, for once, there was evidence that could not be explained away by the adults in her life. The disappearance of an entire prize winning garden and a hole in the earth that led straight to hell were difficult for anyone to ignore.

The day began with the same routine as it always did for Opal and the children of the Clattenrot Foster home, though it was becoming more curious by the minute. Opal stood, as she often did, toward the back of the gaggle of children listening to Miss Clattenrot’s morning instructions. She pressed the toes of her right foot into the dusty soil and began to drag them in a graceful arc, leaving behind a curved trail. She slid her foot back and forth as she ignored Clattenrot’s lecture.

“The grounds will be impeccable. The lawns measured to precisely seven centimeters tall. And, put down your hand Ellis,” shouted Ms Clattenrot as she waved off the the question from the shortest and roundest of the boys.

“You will be issued rulers to verify the heights and I expect they will be returned to me clean and undamaged. Hand shears will be returned to the storage shed at Clattenrot Place, clean and oiled. If I fail to find your shears properly stored or a blade of grass exceeding seven centimeters, you will be spending the next three nights in the basement.” Clattenrot’s coarse voice echoed off the brick walls of the shops surrounding the Teaberry garden. A small bead of sweat hovered in the deep recess above her thin upper lip. Clattenrot’s eyes scanned the children for a sign of understanding when she caught Opal scratching at the soil.

“Is that clear?” she snarled to the children as she stepped toward Opal. “What do have today Miss van Gogh? Another masterpiece in the mud?”

Opal’s breath stopped and her eyes widened to the size of serving platters though she kept her gaze to the ground; avoiding Clattenrot’s stare. “Torchveil,” she murmured under her breath.

“What’s that? Speak up child, it’s rude to mutter.”

“My name is Torchveil,” shouted Opal.  “Not van Gogh and not Lampshade.  I’ve snipped hundreds of lawns. Snipped till my hands bled. I know what to do and I know --”

“Oh, you know what to do, do you? Well that is a surprise.” Ms Clattenrot’s mouth curled into a smile; a smile that would make a rhinoceros feel uneasy. The other children began to chuckle. Clattenrot encouraged them with a wave of her hand. “You, who have required assistance on every job I give you. You, Miss Lampshade, who has failed time and time again to complete your chores at Clattenrot Place.  You know the instructions? Prove it Mona Lisa.” Clattenrot bent her twisted back down so her pointed nose nearly touched Opal’s. “Complete one garden today without any mishap and you can move out of the basement.”

A groan rose through the other children like a fog horn.

“Out of the basement for one night,” continued Ms Clattenrot.

Opal looked up from her etching in the soil. It resembled a wing drawn in sketches by DaVinci of flying machines. Her eyes met Clattenrot’s and for a moment she felt a bit of power move from her to the thin twisted body of her foster guardian; a power that she controlled. Though the feeling faded fast.

Clattenrot seemed to shudder for a moment as her shoulders pinched together. She then shook herself like a horse removing a fly from its snout and burnt her gaze back into Opal’s defiant stare.

“Mona Lisa is a painting, not an artist,” Opal shot.

“What?” stammered Clattenrot.

“I said, Mona Lisa is-” but Opal was cut off from speaking as her right ear blazed with the fire of a hard smack to the side of the head. The sound of Clattenrot’s open hand colliding with the side of Opal’s face rung through the garden like a warning bell.

“Know your place,” growled Ms Clattenrot keeping her hard gaze on Opal’s wounded expression before she turned to scowl at the other children, who immediately raised shears and rulers to the their sides with military precision. They scattered from the assembly area behind Ms Teaberry’s candle shop to their assigned gardens and yards.

Opal was left alone in the Teaberry rose garden with Ms Clattenrot.

“Are you ready for crumpets Clattle?” shouted the sweet voice of round Mrs Teaberry from the back door of her candle shop. For some odd reason, the kind old woman enjoyed Ms Clattenrot’s company and stuffed her with crumpets and tea while the children tended to the landscaping business.

“Coming Teabee,” Ms Clattenrot shouted back in a sickening falsetto.  “I’ll be watching you, Lampshade,” she huffed as she marched away to stuff her face and gossip.

“No you won’t,” Opal muttered under her breath, turning her back to Clattenrot and her attention to the smell of roses. She tried to imagine herself rising above the garden on the drafts of sweet perfume with wings covered in rose petals. Up to a place where the ugliness of her life faded away and was replaced with green rolling hills, steep rocky cliffs and the cloud-like white froth of waves crashing into the shoreline. For a moment she could almost feel her feet lift from the ground and wings extend from her back.

But instead of flying above St Agnes, Opal instead dropped to her knees and began snipping the turf to the required height of seven centimeters. She looked up at the striking color of the rose bushes and perennials in full bloom and lost track of time as she crawled along like a dog with a pair of shears.

She had no idea how much time passed when she felt something small and hard strike her backside. Opal turned to see Tommy Braskins, the eldest of the boys at Clattenrot Place, standing at the garden gate.

“Oy you git. Wake up. Lunchtime.” Tommy surveyed the garden and curled his upper lip. “You’re not even half way though, Lampshade.” He shook his head in disgust. “We’ll be pickin’ up your slack again,” shouted Tommy as he turned and headed back out the gate.

Opal slumped sideways in the grass and surveyed the garden. It seemed different somehow; the roses less colorful and the perfume of the gladiolas had turned sour. As she fixated on the most spectacular bush at the center of the garden, a dark shadow darted through the far right edge of her view. She turned, but nothing was there. Then again there was movement just beyond that place in front to you, to the far far edges where you can’t quite see.  Opal spun herself around in a circle and back to the center of the garden to find the prize-winning rosebush, scorched and dead.


  1. Hi Patrick

    This is a great start to an intriguing set-up.

    There was a lot going on in your opening paragraph and, as a reader, I was left a little bewildered. I'm trying to get to grips with an angry mob, an odd man, beasts, drawings coming to life, a garden disappearing... It diluted the immediacy of the mob scene, which held great tension and threat. Perhaps the other background details could filter in later in the story. As this opening chapter seems to be about the garden, maybe the link between the angry mob, the disappearing garden and Opal could be the thrust of this paragraph?

    Loved the name 'Clattenrot' - how villainous! But I was confused by "Lampshade'... do we need so many names applied to Opal so early on? I wasn't sure if I'd missed a very obvious reason for the name Lampshade, but it didn't seem to fit with the artists' names that Clattenrot was throwing at her. It became a little distracting.

    I noticed a lot of dialogue tags scattered throughout: shouted, shot, stammered, snarled, growled, muttered (though elsewhere, you were very effective in using action beats around the speech, for example in the paragraph where Tommy is speaking).

    One other thing I found distracting was small action descriptions that didn’t ring true. Even minor gestures need to be authentic. For example, I found myself trying to mimic Opal in the first paragraph and found it impossible to pout while chewing my lower lip and to raise my brow while squinting and staring into the distance. Likewise, when she widens her eyes while looking down - i doesn’t feel real to show surprise in the direction of the floor. To me, eyes widening is a ‘tell’ that we show to other people.

    Finally, in the second last line the narrator seems to address the reader directly: “that place in front of you...where you can’t quite see.” It seems like a different voice from the 3rd person omni narrator from before - but as someone who struggles with POV, maybe I shouldn’t belabour this! ;-)

    Hope all that is helpful.
    best regards

  2. Hi Patrick,

    This looks like an exciting start to a rootable orphan MC, with a flair for art! Ditto--I love the names--Torchveil, Clattenrot, Teaberry garden! Such delightful names and they remind me of the greats, like Roald Dalh and Charles Dickens.

    I have to admit: while I'm excited to see how Opal might have caused an explosion(?)/disappearance of a garden, I'd caution against using a flashforward in a novel because it has the potential to be confusing. And I did have to reread the first couple of paragraphs a few times to really grasp what was going on. A flashforward is a screenwriting technique that works better visually. I'd recommend perhaps weaving in the "odd man in the hat" somewhere within the first five pages of your novel to hook us better.

    There were a few lines that I felt were a bit overwritten, especially when I read them aloud. For example, "A small bead of sweat hovered in the deep recess above her thin upper lip. Clattenrot’s eyes scanned the children for a sign of understanding when she caught Opal scratching at the soil" was a bit of a mouthful.

    I'd also try to keep the POV consistent and perhaps a bit more intimate, if you're willing. It reads like third-person distant and for the most part, the narrative sticks to Opal's perspective and none of the other characters. But there were occasional dips into Clattenrot's head, usually about her physical gestures where her intent was made clear: "Clattenrot encouraged them with a wave of her hand." (Though I usually associate a wave of the hand as a signal that you should stop laughing, ha). I do enjoy the third-person omniscient and it can work quite well in MG (ie. The Series of Unfortunate Events). But this is Opal's story and hers only, so I'd like to become closer to her and feel her emotions, hear her thoughts, and take this journey with her.

    And I really do want to hear more about this man in the hat ;)


  3. Well, PJ, I am happy to say that you are, indeed, a writer.

    Very nice work. I love the setting and I have a soft spot for poor Opal already. This feels very British-y to me. Which is a good thing in my book. Your voice and rhythm are very spot, on, as they say, and I don’t see too much to snipe about. However, in your opening, you might want to break that down a little into a few paragraphs. Perhaps give a paragraph break here:

    She was lost in a puzzle; a mystery…
    Who was the odd man in the hat?
    Did he control those beasts or was he merely watching the show?
    Strange things happened…

    Perhaps even italicize the first two questions as in an internal thought.

    Clattenrot—great name—reminds me of the worst of Dolores Umbridge!

    You’ve got some good stuff here and I’m looking forward to seeing where else it can go.

    1. Thanks Ron. I wanted to let you know my eldest son and I both read Hoodoo several months ago and loved it. We're looking forward to the Mesmerist. I have to say that my generic premise with Torchveil has some conceptual overlap with your work but that my intention for Opal, and Ellis, will place them in their own unique world.

  4. Hi PJ,

    Your writing in these pages is terrific! I really enjoyed the prose a lot. It has a bit of a Jonathan Auxier feel to it. (And if you haven't yet read PETER NIMBLE, do so immediately!) It's quite clear you know how to write! Very nice job!

    Normally with entries in this workshop, I tell writers to start as late as they can in the action. So I'm really shocked to be saying now that I think you may have started too late in the action. At least in regard to the first paragraph. The man in the hat and the beasts and the hell hole and the mob were all kinda challenging for me -- just too much going on and not enough grounding. So what I'd recommend is starting with paragraph two. You paint such a deliciously appalling picture of Clattenrot and her horrific treatment of the children that I really don't think you need all the clutter that appears in the first paragraph. Starting with "The day began with the same routine..." would be stronger opening in my opinion.

    Also, there are a couple of rough patches/typos (e.g., “What do have today Miss van Gogh?") and the POV issue in the last paragraph, along with some repetitive phrases (e.g., "center of the garden"). Keep an eye out for those.

    But overall, this is great stuff! I really like what you've written in these pages and I'd definitely love to see more.

    Looking forward to the next round!


    1. Hi Rob. Thanks for the advice. I just picked up Peter Nimble today. It's an incredible idea that seems fantastically written. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. That you all for the comments so far. That first paragraph was actually the last paragraph of the chapter at one point. Something I read at the time (wish I could remember exactly what) had me thinking about moving it to the front and while I knew it may not work, there was something I liked about the idea.

    This is why I love getting feedback. Especially, critical feedback, which I know may sound odd, but I'd almost rather hear about what isn't working than what is. Though that's also helpful to the spirit at times.

    Thanks again to you all.

  6. Hi there PJ,

    I love Opal! Your entry had me giggling and smiling. She's caught my heart even though Mid-grade is not usually a section I really enjoy. You made the 20 something giggle and laugh so kudos to you!

    I too tried to mimic her facial expressions and found it a little hard, but for a robot I did let it go as, well, I'm not a robot.

    Though my main concern was the man in the beginning. He caught my attention and had me very interested. Now I'm presuming that he appears again a little further into this chapter, but he had me questioning where he went.

    The opening paragraph needs to be broken up as mentioned above - it helps with the flow. You have a few natural break points as mentioned before. The jump to the beginning of the day seemed kind of out of place and made the rest seem like an information dump till we got back to present time at the end of your five pages. I don't mind quick breaks to go into some detail, but as I've been told too is to break it up.

    I'm rooting for Opal. She's got my heart.



  7. Hi Patrick,
    Your details about Opal's being lost in a puzzle or mystery in the first paragraph really grabbed my curiosity. For a middle school classroom, I'd classify this first bit "high-interest." But then the details about the daily routine require the reader to draw on her patience. In a read-aloud kids would probably still be on the edge of their seats, but reading independently a reader might want to jump ahead to find this odd man and the beasts and learn more about the attack and a hole to hell. So I can see the benefit in starting after that paragraph, even though I love the details in it.

    The parts in your description of the morning routine that intrigue me most are the details about art and how it applies to Opal. Even without the first paragraph, the reader understands that something odd is going on with Opal's artwork. The imagery of wings/flight/angels is especially interesting.

    The scorched rose bush surprises me, in a good way. I am really curious how Opal will feel about it or account for it. Most of the time your narration keeps us distant from Opal's feelings, but not always. Will Opal assume she will be blamed for the demise of the rose bush? More!

  8. There were things in the scene I enjoyed and things in the scene that confused me. I think you have a distinctive writing voice. I was intrigued with what was going on in the scene at first. I thought your main character was interesting. The biggest problem I had with the scene—I don’t think you created the world sufficiently enough to immerse the reader. We are thrown into this world without really knowing what’s going on. Which is fine, I like to do that myself as a writer, but then once you throw me in this world I need you to create this place for me, need you to tell me enough what’s going on so that I’m not lost.

    Sometimes as authors it’s easy to forget that the reader doesn’t know the whole story we have in our head. Things that make sense to us, the writer, is often confusing to the reader since they are not privy to that storyline whirling around in our subconscious. I think you need to go back to this scene and look at it from the pov of the reader. If you didn’t know anything about the story you are telling, would everything in this scene make sense to you? If the answer is no, then you need to rework the scene and help clarify a few things. You are telling us a story and drawing us down this path with you. You don’t want us to get lost on the path. Especially if your audience is middle grade age.

    About your characters-- your main character is submissive and defiant in the same paragraph. The adult is bullying and cajoling in the same sentence. I think you need to keep your character’s reactions more consistent especially within the same sentence and paragraph.

    I’m not a big midgrade reader, but I’m wondering if references to artist like Van Gogh and DaVinci would be references that age of kids would get. And if Lampshade is an artist reference—it’s not one I know. I was lost on the Lampshade reference.

    And at the very end of the piece the first we hear about the rose bush is when it is scorched. If you introduced the rose bush to us earlier in the scene, then when we find out it’s destroyed there is more of an impact.

    I would look at the scene and consider whether your verbiage is written more for adults than middle grade readers. It felt more like an adult scene to me. Once again, I’ve not read a lot of middle grade books, though I’m told my books are in that range which is between middle grade and young adult—the tween group. I know personally I have to go through my stuff at times and make sure I’m not making it too adult sounding.

    Hope this advice helps.

    1. Hi Cat. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and critiques. I believe I have addressed the majority of them in my first edit. I can say that I try to consider the complexity of language for the age-group of the reader, but do find that the middle grade market is incredibly diverse with story complexity, length, and sophistication. My stories are written more for the slightly older middle grade audience (pre-YA/YA overlap). This market (middle grade) has books that are just beyond the illustrated chapter books and others that weave sometimes dark and complex stories of mammoth lengths. It does present a challenge, which is why the type of feedback we receive here is so valuable.