Sunday, April 2, 2017

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Riley

Name: Lorna Riley
Genre: YA Sci-Fi Thriller
Title: Locusts

I flinch away as Mom tries to straighten my collar for the hundredth time, a gnawing unease creeping through me. I should want to win. I know I should.

The others do.

I glance over at them, waiting in the wings, eager to get out on stage. The hope. The desperation. The murderous determination, even. It’s burning in their eyes. They need it. The Harvard scholarship. The prestige. All of it.

Why don’t I?

Mom squeezes my arm. “Nila, stop that.”

“What now?” Pulling away from her, I resist the urge to roll my eyes.

“That thing you do, twiddling your fingers like that.”

I stop what I’m doing and look down at her hands, raising my eyebrows. She’s picking at her cuticles again. “You can talk.”

“Touché.” She tries to laugh as she buries her hands in her pockets. “We’ve got nothing to worry about, though. You aced the presentation. Everyone was completely blown away. Including the competition.”

The corner of my mouth twitches. If only she knew where I was and what I was doing to make that possible. But she’s not let me out of her sight all day, and I’m getting jittery. I just need to calm down. Focus.


Everything’s going to be okay.

But my ribcage keeps closing in on me, all the same.

“Have you turned your palm pad off?” Mom’s words hover on the periphery, not going in. A sudden burst of laughter makes me turn around, and I see Lucinda hanging off Leo’s every word. They’re all smiles and teeth. Ready to take a chunk out of each other to make sure they win. “Nila!”

Mom’s raised voice catches Leo’s attention. He grins at me, flashing his sparkling white teeth. As perfect as the rest of him.

Not even a single blond hair out of place.

Maybe I wouldn’t mind winning if it meant getting to see the look of disappointment on his face.
“Nila!” says Mom under her breath. “Ignore him! He’s not worth it!”

“Yes, Mom.”

She raises her eyebrows at my tone, but before she has the chance to respond, I feel an arm placed around my shoulder. “Ladies.”

“Leo.” Mom nods at him politely. “If you don’t mind, I just have to go and get myself a glass of water.”

“No problema.”

I cringe, and Mom throws me a look as she leaves. One that says, ‘Aren’t you coming?’

Pasting on my best smile, I turn to Leo as I sidle out of his headlock. “Good luck.”

“Thanks. May the best man win.” He winks at me, just in case I didn’t get his meaning.

It makes me want to vomit on his shoes.

I wait until Mom is out of earshot. “So that’ll be Qiu, then?”


I raise an eyebrow at him, refusing to rise to his feigned ignorance.

“Oh, you mean head brace boy?” He looks over at Qiu, who’s doing his best to pretend he hasn’t heard every word. But I can see the red heat surging up the back of his neck. Leo clutches his chest, with a pained expression. “I’m hurt. So hurt, right now.”

“Don’t tempt me,” I growl at him.

Leo looks down at me and laughs, and I seriously contemplate knocking his smile to the other side of his face. Before I get chance, Professor Albright claps his hands.

“Right ladies and gentleman, shall we get in our places?”

Mom hurries over. Giving me one last look up and down, she adjusts a pleat on my skirt and stands back to admire her handiwork. I don’t know why I let her put me in this scratchy gray thing. As if I didn’t feel uncomfortable enough.

Sighing, Mom ushers me towards the stage and whispers, “Your father would have been so proud of you.”

My legs suddenly refuse to cooperate, and I stumble forwards, knocking into Leo. He shoves me back, and I’m out on stage. A burst of polite applause breaks the silence, but all I can see is the bright white of the lights bearing down on me, scorching the backs of my eyes. Everything else is darkness.
It’s broad daylight outside, but they’ve shut the blinds and turned the spotlights on full, anyway.
I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I’m burning up.

And frozen to the spot.

All at the same time.

Why did she have to mention him now?

The others take their seats, but I just stand there. Staring out at the crowd. And everyone’s looking at me. I can’t… I can’t…

Shaking my head, I try to remember what Brooke would say. What would she tell me to do?

Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. That’s all. Forget everything else.

I close my eyes and focus, my breaths coming in fitful gasps. But slowly I take control.

“Come on, dear.” Joining me on stage, Professor Albright places a reassuring hand on my back, and a wave of relief rushes through me as my feet finally obey. He guides me to my seat then steps up to the podium. The applause fades to nothing. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the 2069 International Young Scientist of the Year Awards.”

The professor pauses as another ripple of applause spreads across the room. I will him to hurry up, beads of sweat are already forming on my forehead.

I throw a quick glance over towards the wings. I can’t see Mom in the shadows, but I know she’s there, watching. As subtly as I can, I rest my hand on my lap, palm up, and swipe through to my second skin controls, adjusting the temperature, until a cool wave covers my body. I start to breathe a little easier, and I try to focus on Albright’s speech. Forget everything else.

The professor coughs, and the clapping dies down again. “I trust you have all enjoyed perusing the displays provided by our four finalists. Some impressive work, I’m sure you agree. They’ve certainly made the judges’ work particularly difficult this year. Indeed, all of us here at the university feel truly honored to have hosted some of the world’s brightest minds here today, from as far afield as Asia, Europe and South America.”

I resist the urge to bury my head in my hands. I know he’s trying to make a point, but seriously? Mom and I moved from Lima five years ago. Qiu’s from Houston. But I’ll give him Lucinda. She’s from London. Though, from the look on her face, she’s not so happy about being called European. They always said the fencing along the English Channel was just to keep the locusts out, but everyone knows it’s for the people trying to escape them too.

The audience applaud all the same, even though they must suspect he’s bending the truth, at least a little. We’ve all seen the global news reports. The food camps. The gaunt faces staring blankly through the fences.

Scientific research isn’t exactly the most pressing concern for most.

But here, we just carry on. Like nothing’s changed. And, for the most part, it hasn’t. Food’s a bit expensive. The job market’s what the government likes to call ‘competitive’. That’s about it.

“However, I’m pleased to say, a winner has been chosen! And so, without further ado, I will hand you over to our sponsor! Lara Simmonds of DVL Corp!”

Sitting up straight, I glance at the others and mimic their smile. Eager. Enthusiastic. Pleased.


  1. This is good! It feels a little whiplashy on the physical reactions and emotions. I would suggest you try to eliminate a few of these, and instead focus on creating a single building sense of dread. It's hard to connect with her feelings when they're changing from annoyance, to anger, to dread, to sorrow, to fear...

    I would also recommend you tell us why she's there earlier. You don't want to confuse your reader at the very beginning of your story. It's okay to build suspense, but not confusion.

    Good luck!

  2. I really enjoyed this, particularly the dialogue between Nila and her mom. You set up tension really well and build your world without info dumping. You also did a great job hooking me in and making me want to read more (which of course you also did with your twitter pitch a while back :)).

    My only real critique would be that I'd like to feel her surroundings just a little more. I loved the part where you had her adjust the temperature controls and I think you could utilize that feeling throughout the rest of this intro. Is the building cold? Hot? Does it smell funny? Sterile? The image of the lights blocking everything out was awesome as well. That being said, I'd like just a bit more setting: red curtains...flags maybe?

    Over all I loved it! Thanks for letting us read (and for your comments :D)

    1. That's really helpful, thanks Courtney!

      (& loved your pitch too, obviously!)

  3. I agree with Courtney, the interaction between all the individuals felt genuine. It can be challenging to write dialogue that sounds real when read out loud. You accomplish that. The story has a bit of a dystopian foreshadowing feel, which is one of my favorites.
    My main critique would be work choice. I notice a tendency for crutch words and non-committal words along with a slight reliance on adverbs.
    I will try to highlight some of what I'm talking about:
    "I flinch away as..." (probably don't need away as flinch implies)
    "Get out on stage" --> get on stage (out implied)
    "I'm getting jittery" --> telling rather than showing a tapping foot, biting lips, etc
    Ribcage..."all the same" --> the phrase feels like extra words not needed or progressing the scene/character
    "If you don't mind, I just have to go..." --> word "just" is one I see appearing several times without adding anything. As it stands, the phrase might read better if you simplify or tighten it
    He winks at me, just in case I don't get his meaning. -->probably don't need the "just in case I don't get his meaning" -it feels implied and almost a shift in POV to 3rd omniscient
    "Raise an eyebrow at him, refusing to rise..." --> the use of raise, then rise created an awkward flow
    "Don't tempt me," I growl. -->no need for additional words
    "Giving me one look up and down..." --> stronger adjective?

    "Asia, Europe, and South America" ->I'm pro Oxford comma ;-)

    Anyhow, those are specific areas I would examine to improve an already solid flow. The overall story is strong and I apologize if anything seems nitpicky, but since it was strong, I had to go to the lowest levels to try and offer feedback!

    1. Thanks so much, Tim! All feedback appreciated, nitpicky or not! It all helps to make the MS better :)

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  5. Hi,

    Well done! I don't have too much to add as the beginning does a great job of introducing uncomfortable tension and even dislike in some cases.

    If I had to add anything, it would be to show us the futuristic setting a bit earlier. It wasn't until the "second skin" comment that I realized we were in the future.

    Great job!

  6. Lorna! Broad impressions first, this made me want to keep reading - job #1 accomplished! I love that it's a science fair sort of scenario, which readers can all relate to, but with the very eerie dangerous undercurrent. The mom fussing with her appearance was a great bait and switch, I thought it was an artistic performance of some kind, and the mentions of the world they're in make the science aspect even more crucial. This feels like it's going in a dark, uneasy place and I love that. I love that science will be a driving force, this is so timely as science and art are currently under attack in our nation and the world, and I am eager to read more. You've got some comments about word choice I tend to agree with, but that stuff is small - remember to try and say what you mean with as few adverbs as possible, find exciting verbs that don't need qualification, as I am NOT demonstrating in this comment, but you know what I mean ;) Thank you so much for this, I can't wait to find out what happens! - Jen

    1. Thanks so much, Jen! You've definitely picked up on where this is going! There's a strong science vs art theme in this book, but Nila ends up needing to use both to resolve the problem she's facing. I had a massive clean up after Tim's comments, & managed to fit a bit more story in for my next sub!

      Thanks again :)

  7. Hello! Thanks for sharing your piece. I was most drawn in by the first and last few paragraphs. I think a little switching up could make this really strong. For your first line, you have all the elements of a dynamic start. For consideration:

    >I should want to win. I know I should. The others do.
    Then go from there. The first line you could drop entirely. OR you could begin with:

    >Hope. Desperation. Murderous determination. The [students?] waiting in the wings are eager to get out on stage. I should be eager too. I know I should.

    So you open with strong phrasing and a contradiction.

    I think it takes a little too long to find out what the exact setting is beyond being back stage. I would suggest moving the following paragraph up to page 1. Then you have the mention of second skin controls to show this story has sci-fi elements. Tell us what this competition/event is for in one simple line for context. Much of the hovering and fidgeting by mom can be cut. Maybe have her say 1 or 2 lines and then move on for pacing.

    >I throw a quick glance over towards the wings. I can’t see Mom in the shadows, but I know she’s there, watching. As subtly as I can, I rest my hand on my lap, palm up, and swipe through to my second skin controls, adjusting the temperature, until a cool wave covers my body. I start to breathe a little easier, and I try to focus on Albright’s speech. Forget everything else.

    Something to be mindful of is extra wording. You can craft a stronger narrative sometimes with less. A few examples:

    >I stop what I’m doing and look down at her hands, raising my eyebrows. She’s picking at her cuticles again. “You can talk.”

    Could be: >I look at her hands. She’s picking at her cuticles again. “You can talk.”

    The difference is she looks and notices the direct thing. The raising of eyebrows in first person POV can get tricky when the character is noticing a physical action about themselves. It would be more useful to note Nila noticing someone else’s raised eyebrows. Same with “the corner of my mouth twitches.” True your POV character could feel that, and it’s not wrong to use that phrasing, but if you have lots of physical descriptions the character narrates about themselves it can create distance. The advantage of first person POV is the focus on thoughts and feelings since we are viewing the story through her eyes. She says one thing but thinks another = instant tension.

    There is a lot of her internal apprehension, but if we don’t know the larger context, that apprehension can fall flat. More context for the sci-fi elements of the world can be added bit by bit over the next 5 pages. It’s done beautifully with the skin controls line. The line about the food camps and global news is another good one to add early, then give us more context. It had been five years since the collapse… or something like that.

    Bonus if you can work into the first 5 pages what your character most wants, or most fears, or is most avoiding. Overall, really nice writing!

    1. Wow! Now my head's really exploding! Thank you! It really helps to have someone challenge you to tear it to pieces - it's so easy to just twiddle and tweak instead of giving it a real shake down. I shall roll up my sleeves and see what I can do! Thanks :)