Sunday, June 4, 2017

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Kondryuk

Name: Lana Kondryuk
Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy

When your mom is a walking lie detector, you master the art of withholding the truth.

Sitting under a shady oak, I grab the closest sack full of herbs and tie it tightly with a twine. A little too tightly. Applying unnecessary force is cathartic. Mom’s got to stop canceling my plans every time a high holiday rolls around. There are eight of them! My social life is barely surviving. Midsummer—Litha, as witches call it—may be in a few days, but Rick’s end of school party is tonight. Mom knew I’d be missing it when she sent me on a three-day plant harvesting trip to Gram’s cabin in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Poconos.

That’s why tonight I’ll drive back to Chornohora and go to Rick’s party against her wishes. If Mom finds out, the worst she can do is make me work overtime at her pagan supply store. I practically live there already—what’s a few more hours?

Binding the sacks together, I hoist them onto my right shoulder, two in the front and two in the back for a perfect balance. My phone vibrates in my pocket. I fish it out with my free hand and read the text message from Denis Gorash, the self-proclaimed Mayor of Chornohora’s Senior Class: Ian, everyone but you has confirmed. You gonna make it to Rick’s tonight? 

Everyone means Samantha Lawrence—my reason for breaking the rules today— will be there. Day one of junior year’s French class, when Sam waltzed over and sat in the chair next to mine, I was a goner. She threw her long, honey-blond hair over her shoulder and said, “Bonjour.” I’m pretty sure time stopped for a while. 

Before I type my response, my phone buzzes with the second text. This one isn’t from Denis. So you aren’t coming. Can’t blame you. Gotta suck knowing Sam’s my date tonight. 

My jaw tightens. Paul Carter, that filthy-rich, self-absorbed, gym-dwelling, hair-gelling moron. He’s got muscles to make Schwarzenegger jealous, a wallet full of cards with six digit limits, and zero brain cells. Naturally, girls fall at his feet. When Sam didn’t, he got interested. Just when I finally worked up the courage to ask Sam out, Paul upped his game. Bastard. I can’t believe we used to be friends. 

Tucking my phone into my backpack, I head out of the oak grove. White clouds drift across clear skies, and warm summer wind hisses between the rocks. It’s a beautiful day that promises a perfect night for a party.

In the first clearing, the wind snatches my baseball cap and hurls it into the thorny brush. Crap. With a grunt, I drop the sacks on the ground and climb into the prickly bushes to get my stupid hat. Then I freeze. Swaying in the breeze beside my worn blue baseball cap are tiny scarlet flowers with fuzzy purple leaves shaped like the wings of a Phoenix. 

No way! It’s the legendary Phoenix Flame. No one’s seen this flower for centuries. It looks exactly like on the drawings in Gram’s massive, old books. All those botany lessons Gram forced on me no longer seem like a waste. If only she were here to witness this.

My hands shake as I position my fingers an inch above the ground level and snap the precious stem. The worth of one little flower can sponsor my entire college education. And there are a few dozen more here.

I’m going to be rich. I won’t ever have to work at The Moon Goddess again. My college tuition won’t be a problem. Richy Rich Paul Carter will have nothing on me.

Giddy laughter erupts from my throat. I’ve never been lucky; haven’t even won a dollar playing the scratch-off lottery. I can’t believe I’m holding it—the mythical, powerful plant rumored to be extinct for centuries. This is every witch’s dream, and I’m the one who gets to live it. Me. The guy who was skipped by his family witch gene.

I place the scarlet flowers in my baseball cap and roll it up. Then I hide it inside my shirt. There’s no way I’m parting with it, not even for a second. If Gram’s lore isn’t bogus, this plant can unlock the body’s ability to heal itself, even if one is an inch from death.

Hoisting the sacks over my shoulder, I hurry out of the woods, grinning. My steps and spirits are light until I reach the meadow.

A powerful gust of wind makes me take a few steps back and then lean forward to keep my balance. Dark clouds swarm the skies, blocking out the sun. Angry lightning bolts slice through them and echo with ear-splitting thunder. Where did this storm come from?

I scan the meadow for shelter and spot a protected area between the rocks. But then I remember the party. If I get stuck on this mountain for hours, I’ll miss it. Images of Paul Carter kissing Sam invade my mind, and all of a sudden getting to the party becomes more important than dodging lightning bolts.

Ignoring all self-preservation instincts, I press my treasure-filled baseball hat tighter to my chest and dash for the path that snakes down the mountain.

The heavens open, releasing a torrential downpour. I slip and slide in the mud. When I pass a boulder that looks like a turtle, I know the ledge is dangerously close. Swearing loudly, I latch onto a young oak and come to a halt. But the ground under my feet breaks off, like a piece of soft chocolate cake, and slides down the mountain, taking me with it.

My heart drops into my stomach. Frantically grabbing at plants and roots, I struggle to slow my fall. Sharp rocks cut into my skin, and dull waves of pain rush through my ribs and knees. The next bump knocks the wind out of me and sends me into the air. Gasping, I hover for a second in a state of weightlessness and then land on a large stone. My head smashes against something hard and then everything goes black.


I awake to pain tearing through my body. When I open my eyes, my surroundings swim in a gray haze. Slowly, the shapes come into focus. Dancing flames on wax-dripping candles cast shadows on dark mud walls. Plants hang suspended from the ceiling in bunches. I don’t know this place; nothing about it is familiar. My heart starts pounding. Where the hell am I?

I lift my dead-weight head, and a sharp pain shoots down my back. Moaning, I let my head fall back onto the rickety cot.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” a soft voice says. A girl about my age locks her large eyes with mine. “You aren’t healed yet.”

I swallow my growing panic and croak, “What happened?” 

The girl tilts her head, regarding me with curiosity. Her long hair spills over her shoulder like a waterfall. “You fell.” She presses a mug of bitter-smelling concoction to my lips and tilts it. “Drink.”

I jerk my head to avoid the contents and wince in pain. “What’s this?” I ask.

“Medicine.” Her lips spread into a smile that could disarm a SWAT team.

I don’t know this girl, but her presence is comforting. My gut feeling is to trust her, and if living in a family of witches has taught me anything, it’s to always trust my gut. I press my lips to the cup and take a few sips.  


  1. Hi Lana,

    So I'm loving the setting and the promise of a rich witch history that I am not familiar with. With that set up I know instantly that this is a unique story with something I haven't seen before witch is great (a fun little pun for you).

    One thing that caught my attention was your comment about the rich pig and how naturally girls fall at his feet. I know you're going for voice but it kinda makes your male character sound like a jerk. I feel like that might turn off many female readers. Just a thought coming from a male author who has had similar issues pointed out to him by female critiquers.

    Also, only in the first part of the submission, before the #, I found myself getting pulled out of the moment when your character was in their head. Its one of the pitfalls of the first chapter for sure, trying to introduce people and history, but I felt like I was still being told things a little too much rather than being shown. Some of it, I think, comes from when you chose to introduce things. Specifically when you start talking about the phoenix flame. This for some reason feels shoe-horned in, misleading since it appears to be a huge deal. Maybe hint at it earlier on when he first hears that the girl he likes will be partying with his rich former friend like if only he could find that your character would be just as rich, and then explain what it is. Over all its a good start that needs to have more shown info than told. I struggle with it, too :)

    1. Jason, thank you for the feedback. Love the pun! :) I think the problem with the Phoenix Flame is not in how I introduced the flower but in Ian's reaction. It needs to show more surprise and disbelief. I will work on that :) And yes, I can see how Paul's description is a bit much. I have an idea on how to make it better (I hope).

  2. Hi! Your first line is awesome! (More on that later.)

    I love the voice of your main character, and I think you do a good job of blending the fantasy elements with the present world. I’m not super familiar with your genre, but I get a feeling this might be one of those portal stories, and as such, think you can take a few more liberties to foreshadow in these early pages to build some tension. For example, there are a lot of coincidences that happen here to get things underway—the hat blowing off, the storm starting up, etc. If these aren’t mere coincidences, then play up your fantasy elements more—such as mom’s walking lie detector (because despite the great first line, you never really come back to that idea) or even the high holidays that are interfering with plans. And if they are mere coincidences, that’s just too much suspension of disbelief all at once.

    Now, I’m going to talk about something nit-picky. If this herb is so rare and unusual, wouldn’t it be protected, and probably illegal to pick? I like Ian’s delight at becoming wealthy, but maybe a little guilt about the contraband would add to his motivation in running through a storm? In general, the character’s voice feels inauthentic during the herb discovery, in contrast to the opening paragraphs. “No Way! And “Giddy laughter erupts” both feel very jarring.

    I’d also like to know how Ian’s witch roots fit in with his school and friends. It’s not totally clear if he’s keeping it a complete secret, or what they think. If these classmates are going to play a role throughout the book, let us in on how they connect. Will Richy Rich Paul be sorry he ever made fun of Ian “witchy” mom once he learns how herbal lore pays off, or will Ian be inventing a cover story to explain his sudden wealth? These kind of hints could help me see where the story is going, and make me feel a little more invested in Ian’s fate.

    I want to be more invested in Ian’s fate, because he seems fun. Can’t wait to see more.

    1. Maria, thank you! I agree about Ian's reaction to finding Phoenix Flame. I will work on making it more natural :) As far as coincidences go, they aren't ;) All the events you picked up on (and you did every single one) are purposeful and start the gears turning. I don't want to add more there at such an early point though because it would deflate the tension. This isn't a portal fantasy though, it's a Contemporary Fantasy about witches that takes place in the real world. Ian is not doing anything illegal harvesting a Phoenix Flame on his own land; there's no governing body that protects legendary plants, particularly those considered extinct for centuries. I get to Ian's social standing in chapters 2 and 3, so that part will be shown. Thank you again for your feedback. It's given me a lot to think about.

  3. Hey Lana!

    I'm really loving this set-up. I love that your MC is male working at his mom's pagan shop. My favorite little mention was Lithia which I have in my story, too. (High-five!) You give just the right amounts of backstory that make me want to know more about Gram and the history, like Jason points out.

    I don't think the MC is so much of a jerk as he is a bit bitter and it kind of made me feel for the guy. It makes me want to know what happened between these two friends and where is all this animosity coming from? I feel a few more details could help out a lot.

    I'm looking forward to see more! Good luck!

  4. Sorry I wasn't signed in. That was me :)

    1. Kristina, thank you. Yes, I'm going to add a bit more to Ian/Paul scene. There seems to be a consensus about this, which to me signals the need to fix things. I will be working on making things clearer, hopefully :)

  5. Hey Lana!

    I have a few things to note. Firstly, I really like that you chose to have a party the MC really wants to attend. It creates drama, because immediately, we the readers are hoping he will get there. Perhaps this tension can be ramped up a bit though and you can introduce this problem more quickly.

    I also like the second character that is introduced in the second part of the chapter. She is intriguing right off the bat and I want to know more about her. I do not, however, feel this way with the MC. I'm not sure you have completely found his voice. The comments he makes about his former best friend may play into this. I would reconsider how you describe the friend as it doesn't feel totally genuine. Also, the MC read very feminine to me, which is totally fine as long as that was intentional.

    Additionally, I wonder if you should start the chapter with him finding the flowers and then on his journey back, we start to find out the reasons he is out there in the first place. The information about the witch world felt a little telling in this chapter. Good luck!

    1. Thank you, Elisha. I'm definitely going to work on how Ian introduces Paul. That scene needs to be improved. Hopefully them Ian will come across a bit more likable. Can I ask what made my MC read feminine? Was it something he said or thought?

    2. I think the 2nd-4th sentences got me started thinking feminine. "Sitting under a shady oak, I grab the closest sack full of herbs and tie it tightly with a twine. A little too tightly. Applying unnecessary force is cathartic." Put this into one forceful sentence to lose the feminine feeling. Incidentally, you want to avoid using --ing words to lead off a sentence. You have a few and it's a less active/more filtered sentence structure that may also read feminine. (sorry, know the ? wasn't for me, but had similar thoughts as Elisha.)

    3. I second Maria! I think how he was handling the herbs and relating to the world is what felt feminine. It runs throughout the passage though. Maybe reading some books written by males with male protagonists could help to pinpoint exact ways to get around it.

    4. Thank you, ladies. I've been tinkering with some of those. Hopefully my revision sounds better

  6. Hello Lana,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us today!

    I found this story engaging. The narrator invites us into his thoughts immediately, and he has a goal, which gives us early momentum. His goal is a typical teenage one, which is fine if not particularly interesting, while his actions are very interesting. It's not every day that you read about a male witch who's out herb collecting!

    Right away, we have a sense of who Ian is and that he has a story to come, but we need to ratchet up the scene level tension and the interest level overall. I encourage you to look at each element of the scene and ask how it could be more challenging for Ian or introduce more tension for the reader.

    One way to introduce tension is through dialogue. This scene is long enough that it seems a bit strange not to hear Ian's voice. Would he not mutter something to himself? Would he maybe text back and forth with his friend a bit, making audible noises to show us his reaction? We need some form of dialogue so that Ian does not come across as mute in the opening pages. Take this as an opportunity to show us his voice. Explore it and see what works.

    Another way to introduce more tension is to examine the details of his scene level goal: collecting herbs. Could this be done covertly? Could he has trespassed? If he is trespassing or breaking the law, then his subsequent capture by and unknown person takes on a new level of interest and tension. I recommend looking at each element of the scene in this way and making sure Ian faces as much antagonism as possible. Even plucking the expensive herb should be frought and difficult! right now things are coming a bit too easily....perhaps even his conversation with his friend is interrupted by losing his signal or his phone dying, which would add urgency to his trip out of the area. Remember, the details you show us are important not to set the scene, but to make the reader feel what you want them to feel. Choose the details that make us feel it. Right now, I'm not getting a lot of mood setting from the details creepy vibe, no fear, little mystery, just some frustration that is not as compelling to read about. Remember, even which herbs you show and their physical descriptions can ellicit feelings in the reader.

    Finally, I would read this selection aloud to iron out the voice a bit more. As the selection went on, the voice became more even, but there are some awkward phrases here and there. Reading aloud should highlight what needs to be changed. We're seeing into Ian's thoughts quite clearly, and I applaud you on that, but it can be taken even farther with some careful line editing. Especially ensure that we do not have too many clipped phrases in a row. This can give the read a stilted feeling. We want a variety of sentence forms with a unique rhythm overall (which you have the beginnings of here). One final detail on voice: in the opening paragraphs, I thought I was reading a female MC. Not sure why (it may be my default setting), but especially make sure that the voice in the opening matches the later pages.

    I see a lot to love here with your voice and your character. I'm eager to see this selection ironed out. From what I see, you have a great foundation and tweaking some of these details could produce something very compelling for agents!

    My best,
    First Five Mentor

    1. Melanie,
      Thank you so much for your feedback. I've worked on adding tension to my opening chapter and hope it works. Mostly, I moved later scenes over. You're totally right in that we need to have as much tension here as possible. It won't matter later on if I don't grab the readers' attention right away. I also worked on varying my sentence structure. I think my paranoia with writing clear, accessible sentences has resulted in too many short, choppy ones. Thank you again!

  7. Hi Lana!

    I love a good witch story! And I loved all of the little details you gave us here, with the herb gathering and the solstice and how Ian was taught botany from a young age. I also think you're really great at writing action descriptions, such as the earth breaking off like a chunk of cake. Really, the whole falling scene was very visual, which is a cool skill that not everyone has.

    I do agree with most all of what was said above, including that your character reads a little feminine to me. (He also reads super young as well. I kept having to check that it was YA and not MG.) But here are the things that stood out to me most:

    1. Setup v. Story
    Your first few paragraphs are mostly setup instead of story, which makes it really hard to sink into the narrative—especially since we’re only in the main character’s head for all of it. It’s so hard to naturally share details from a person’s thoughts. Because if I’m thinking about my mom’s store, I’ll probably refer to it as “the store” or “her store” in my thoughts, not the “pagan supply store.” I also never think about my friends or love interests using their first and last names.

    I think if you focus more on immersing us into the story, you can find a more natural way to give us those details, such as through conversation or action. Really, I think you need another character there, or to start in a different place where he's not all alone.

    For example (just to show you what I mean), if he starts at the grandma's house, you can SHOW that they're prepping for the solstice, and he can verbalize his resolve to make it to the party, even if it's just through grumbling or thoughts that answer back to his grandma or mom as they send him out into the field. (He would obviously then find the flower/have the fall while on his way to gather herbs, not after.)

    You'll find the best way/place to start the book and solve for this, but alone in the field isn't working for what you need to intro. And the most important thing is to immerse your reader into the scene, then craft the setup naturally. Immersion is what will keep them reading.

    2. Passive Character = No Tension
    Your main character doesn't really play an active role in these pages. He's sent to gather herbs. He accidentally finds this special flower. He gets caught in a storm that makes him fall. All of that happens TO him, while he does effectively nothing to change his circumstances. He even gets texted and doesn't bother texting back. He's completely passive. So, while the idea of him wanting to sneak out to the party gives us the glimmer of tension, the fact that he's not enacting a plan to make it happen snuffs out that glimmer completely.

    I think if you can find some way to have him do something, it will go a long way to heighten the reader's need to turn pages. Remember, your character should drive the plot, he shouldn’t be driven by the plot.

    And this leads into my third point... (as a reply to this comment...because evidently, I'm not good at character limits)

    1. 3. Non sequitur first line
      You have this amazing, voice-filled, relatable first line! (YAY!) But nothing that happens over the next five pages relates back to it. (sadness.) I mean, maybe you can make a vague connection in that he'll probably have to lie to sneak out. But you never show us his mom playing the detector or him withholding truth, so it feels like a non sequitur sitting atop the real start of your story.

      I think a stronger start to your book is hidden in the promise of that first line.

      4. The Phoenix Flower of Foreshadowing
      On a smaller, nit-picky point, I have serious issues with the whole flower thing. First, if it's important for later, it's a total Deus Ex Machina device, in that he did nothing to earn the finding of it. It literally falls into his lap (or under his cap, as the case may be). But even then, how he reacts to finding it doesn't make sense to me.

      I mean, if it's so valuable that it will solve all money problems forever, why would he harvest one blossom? Why not take the whole living plant, so they can grow in a pot in his living room or backyard for continual harvesting? If not that, why wouldn't he mark where he found them somehow so he can come back for more? Or maybe hide them so anyone walking through won't steal them from his grandmother's property? My point is that you can show us how valuable the plant is to the character in how he treats it/makes plans to protect/harvest from it. And if he can actively find it rather than have it handed to him, all the better.

      Great work here, Lana! I hope these notes help a little. Let me know if you have any questions! I tend to be overly hard on first pages because they are so vital to the rest of the book. And I am super excited to see how you tackle the issues presented!


      First Five Mentor

    2. Heather,
      Thank you so much for a very detailed and super helpful feedback. You won't believe how many times I've rewritten the opening chapter. I've already tried a scene at the store where Ian's mom sends him to harvest herbs. I've even tried starting the story a little earlier in his journey. I've also received a good amount of feedback. Everyone urged me to start as close to an inciting event as possible, and weave in bits and pieces of backstory. The beginning I have now is just minutes from an inciting event. I think you right that I need to give Ian more agency. Besides his decision to sneak out and to race down the mountain instead of seeking shelter, Ian doesn't make things happen, they happen to him. So, I'm moving a later scene (modified, of course) to this chapter. I hope it addresses several issues you brought up. I've also added several vocal reactions :) Thank you again.