Sunday, July 30, 2017

Writing a Better Novel Pitch: What's the Point of Your Novel?

Photo by pollyalida
Reposted from Adventures In YA Publishing
Writing a book isn't easy. Everyone struggles with where to begin, and often figuring out where to start the story is the hardest part. But really the answer is easier than you think. Writing a book begins on the first line with a hint of what the story is all about.

"Whenever possible, tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence."
John Irving

Take Hunger Games for example. At first glance, you may not think the first sentence says much. But it gets right to the heart of what matters to the main character.

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

Katniss wakes up instantly aware that her sister is gone because Prim is the most important thing in her life. It is the passion that will drive Katniss to do everything else that she does in the book. It's what makes the writing in the book so compelling.

Starting Concept in the First Sentence of Your Book

Of course we don't recognize the full importance of that sentence yet. But within that first line in the book, we already have two built-in questions:

1) Who was supposed to be asleep on the other side of the narrator's bed?
2) Why did that person get up too early?

Those questions pull us into the next sentence curious to find out what's going, which leads us into the next sentence, and on down the page. On the surface of our minds, we don't recognize we already know what the book is about. But subconsciously, we suspect. We recognize subliminally that who is in the bed with Katniss matters to her. And the fact that we want to know more and that we're willing to keep reading means that Suzanne Collins' first sentence has done its job.

Is that enough? Or does a truly great first line have to let the reader know what kind of a story he or she is about to read and suggest something important about this particular story? Does it also need to have enough specificity to bring the concept into play? And what exactly is concept anyway?

Defining the Concept of Your Book

Larry Brooks, in STORY ENGINEERING, defines concept like this: "The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most empowering when expressed as a 'what if?' question. The answer leads to further 'what if?' questions in a branching and descending hierarchy, and the collective whole of those choices and answers comes your story."

It's easy to confuse concept with plot, and that's not it. Because that leaves out something that Lisa Cron's recent book WIRED FOR STORY calls the "'so what?' factor." She goes on to explain that the "so what?" factor is what clues a reader in on the point of the story, the relevance of everything that happens in it, what the story is about.

Concept vs. High Concept Books

We've all heard the term "high concept." Hollywood wants it. Publishers want it. Heck, writers want it. Yet all too often, we start off writing a story or series of events instead of an actual concept, high or otherwise. That's not fatal. We can fix it. We can fix anything given long enough and desire enough, but it's easier to write to a concept than it is to insert a concept into a book you've already written.

A high concept, as succinctly explained by Nathan Bransford, is a "hook that we can easily understand and digest." He points out that editors are increasingly drawn to high concepts, even in literary fiction. And that's because a concept you can put into once sentence is easy to sell to readers, tv viewers, and movie-goers.

Literary agent Scott Eagen points out that high concept is more than a brief plot summary. Rather, he explains, "it's what makes your story unique from everything else out there." What does your story have that makes it different from anything other writers have done before?

Bingo. High concept is a book that can be sold from a pitch -- and the execution doesn't matter quite so much. 

A sparkly vampire falls in love with the one girl in the world whose blood might tempt him to break his vow not to feed on humans.

Note that I've deliberately stated that backwards. The way I've put the premise would be Edward Cullen's story, and I haven't followed any of formulas for presenting concept. My point is, it really doesn't matter how you explain the premise of Twilight. It's unique. It has conflict. Someone is going to read it. And no matter what you want to say about Stephanie Meyer's writing, the execution is full of tension and over the top romance. It's Romeo Meets Juliet, Cinderella, and the Ugly Duckling all rolled into one. Genius.

Can Every Book Be High Concept?

Even if the book you are writing isn't high concept, it can sell and sell well. The difference, I think, is that the less high-concept it is, the harder it will be to sell, and the better the execution is going to have to be. We can read all we want to about developing high concept ideas, that doesn't mean that we are all going to come up with sparkly vampires. Or Hunger Games. Nice to think we could, but we don't write to order. Our muses are more fickle than that. (Mine is downright mean to me.)

Lisa Cron says the first step in finding your concept is to "zero in on the point your story is making." And then, she says, "filter out unnecessary and distracting information" that doesn't work to weave together the protagonist's issue, the theme, and the plot that keeps the story focused.

"A story is designed," according to Cron, "from beginning to end to answer a single overarching question. As readers, we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer."

She points out that, after many years in the publishing industry, she is convinced that an author who can't summarize the novel in a few "clearly focused, intriguing" sentences needs to rewrite the book, not the query letter, because the manuscript isn't going to be intriguing or clearly focused either. (Um, yeah. I'm putting up my hand here. Yes, yes, I am. Guilty, your honor. Been there, done that.)

Here is how she says that she can tell when the writing in a book is veering off to rejection:

  • The protagonist isn't on stage or evident, so the reader has no way to judge the relevance of what is happening in the story.
  • The protagonist is clear, but doesn't have a clear goal, so the reader can't tell where the story is likely to go or why she should care about the story.
  • The protagonist's external goal is clear, but there's nothing to suggest what internal demon or problem that goal is going to make her confront, so the story is boring or feels like it doesn't matter.
  • The protagonist has both an inner and out goal, but suddenly that doesn't carry through the entire story, or doesn't have anythign to do with the action in the plot.
  • The protagonist doesn't behave in a believable way while responding to her goals, so it's impossible to tell what she'll do next. (Or understand it.)
The bottom line is--and read WIRED FOR STORY, I promise you'll get it--if we as writers don't know what our writing is about, we won't be able to convince the reader to care about our stories, to lose themselves in our books.

The Three Elements that Work Together

Here's one final, insight I gleaned from Lisa Cron. Concept is the synthesis of three elements that work in unison to create a story:
  1. The story question that forces the protagonist to confront an internal problem,
  2. The theme or universal meaning that the story shows about human nature, and 
  3. The plot or series of obstacles that the protagonist has to overcome in the course of illustrating what the writer wants us to understand.
In other words, a book's concept statement can be explained like this:


Elevating Concept and Raising the Stakes

Larry Brooks, in a brilliant post on Story Fix, writes about concept as "the engine" of our book. He points out that there are other parts that make the car (or story) run, but without the engine, it isn't going far.

Keeping our scenes tightly focused on the three elements defined by Lisa Cron, we're likely to have a solid book, one that readers can understand and care about. But are enough readers going to find and care enough about the story to make it worthwhile for a publisher to shell out thousands of dollars (or much more) to get it out in print? How do we make the leap from writing good books to writing books that are good enough? Or from good enough to great?

Before we sit down to write a book, it's worth the time to consider how to make it interest as many people as possible and make it truly different than what's already out there. How to make it more marketable, in other words. Otherwise, we're trying to roll the proverbial boulder up the hill. We may eventually get it to the top and get it rolling toward publication, but we've had to do a whole lot of extra heavy lifting on the way.

Eight Ways to Develop a Unique Book Concept

Wouldn't it be easier to make sure we've done everything we can to sell the book before we even start worrying about how to write it? Coming up with a unique concept can happen in any number of ways. You can:
  • Show a new perspective into a real event, character, or situation
  • Tap into the headlines for something that people are already talking about
  • Tackle a really controversial subject or show an alternative to something people accept as fact
  • Use a universal fear or motive in a different way
  • Combine two familiar ideas into something new
  • Use the train-wreck phenomenon to take readers on a sensational ride
  • Twist the end to turn the familiar into a surprise.
  • Up the wow factor by creating a new superpower, revamping (yes, sparkly pun intended) a creature we already know, inventing a fearsome new weapon, revealing an incredible magical artifact, or inventing a different kind of life-threatening situation.
Easy-peasy, right? No pressure.

Ten Minimum Components of a Marketable Book Concept

Whatever concept we come up with though, at minimum, we have to make sure we include:
  • At least one fascinating character: Someone bigger than life, who cares very deeply about someone or something and is willing to fight for it.
  • An interesting setting: A location or world where readers have never been but want to visit either in our dreams or in our nightmares.
  • An inherent conflict: The situation that pits the fascinating character against someone or something that is going to keep her from getting what she wants--while keeping readers at the edge of our seats unable to guess the outcome.
  • An emotional appeal: The reason readers understand the stakes, care about them, and connect to the events and characters on a personal, heart-deep level.
  • A universal or familiar idea: The connection to something we already know something about or have previously wondered about.
  • An original twist: The aspect of the story that makes it different from any other story--the way ordinary things are combined, slanted, spun, and stacked to take the universal or familiar idea and warp it into something unique and unexpected.
  • A piece of coolness: A tool, ability, artifact, or something in the character, setting, or situation that makes our jaws drop.
  • A high-impact inciting incident: The situation that catapults us all into the story with no way back.
  • High stakes: The reason it matters if the fascinating character loses, not just to her but to other people. The actual consequences of failure that the reader can't bear to contemplate.
  • A great title: A word or two or three that intrigue and sum up the book. 
The things that makeup a great manuscript don't have to be supernatural or fantastical. THey just have to be clearly unique, identifiable to the reader. Think of Lena or Amma in BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, you instantly visualize them, right? Think of the parties at the lake in IMAGINARY GIRLS; you can picture them. Think of the black madonna, the hat woman, and the honey house in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. Of Big and Gram in THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, the faerie horses and the island in THE SCORPIO RACES, the shifter in MISTWOOD, the way the graces work in GRACELING, the ghost who falls in love in ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD. Different. Unique. Unforgetable.

Go forth and write great books, everyone. Happy writing!


Books for Additional Reference:

  • Lisa Cron - Wired for Story
  • Lori Wilde - Got High Concept? The Key to Dynamic Fiction that Sells
  • AlbertZuckerman - Writing the Blockbuster Novel
  • Donald Maass - Writing 21st Century Fiction
  • Donald Maass - Writing the Breakout Novel
  • Larry Brooks - Story Engineering
  • James N. Frey - How to Write a Damn Good Novel
  • Les Edgerton - Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One

  • Posts:

  • Recipe for Success? High Concept in Fiction
  • Nathan Bransford on What High Concept Means
  • Combining High Concept with Emotional Resonance
  • Mary Kole on Love vs. Sell
  • Babbles from Agent Scott Eagen on What Is High Concept?
  • High Concept from Absolute Write
  • Conquering the High Concept
  • Defining the High Concept from Laura Pauling
  • Alexandra Sokoloff on High Concept
  • Chuck Sambuchino Examines High Concept Hooks For Childrens Books
  • Building a Better Novel Premise
  • Forty Questions for a Stronger Manuscript
  • Elana Roth on High Concept
  • Writing Lessons from THE HUNGER GAMES

  • About the Author

    Martina Boone is the award-winning author of Compulsion and the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy for young adults from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse as well as the Celtic Legends series for adult readers beginning with Lake of Destiny. She is the founder of the First Five Pages Workshop and, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site as well as, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.

    Monday, July 24, 2017

    Thank You to the Participants and Mentors of the July 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop!

    Congratulations to all of the participants who worked so hard during our July 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop! We were all impressed with this great group of talented authors! And a big thank you to the fabulous Laura Williams McCaffrey, as our author mentor and Gabrielle Piraino  as our agent mentor - both provided great feedback! As always, thank you to our talented and fabulous permanent mentors, who read, comment, and cheer on our participants every month!

    The workshop will take a hiatus in August, as I'm sure many of you will be entering PITCH WARS, which is hosted by our mentor, the lovely Brenda Drake, and many of our mentors are also Pitch Wars mentors as well! (Did I mention how wonderful our mentors are?!!) Good luck to all of you who enter!

    The workshop will open again on September 2nd!

    Happy writing and revising!


    About the Author:
    Erin Cashman is AYAP's  1st 5 Pages Workshop coordinator, and a permanent mentor. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three kids, and an energetic rescue dog. Her YA fantasy debut, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was named a Bank Street College of Education best book of the year. For up to date information about the workshop, you can follow Erin on twitter here

    Monday, July 17, 2017

    1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Simonelli Rev 2

    Name: Danielle Simonelli
    Genre: Young Adult fantasy
    Title: The Blood of Runes


    When Pippa was thirteen, a supernatural storm swallowed her Viking father and whisked him away. Three years later, Pippa relies on her older brother, Jamie, to keep her safe. In true Viking fashion, she gambles and takes unnecessary risks, but she’s only trying to cope with the loss of her father. When the cloud returns and snatches Jamie, Pippa is heartbroken and vows to save him.

    A young sorceress, Margret, reveals the cloud is a Night Mare—a sinister horse when on land and a menacing storm in the sky. Margret can track Jamie using ancient blood magic and offers her help. Pippa learns the sorceress is lying about her true identity, but using Margret’s powers might be the only way to save her brother.

    Pippa steals Viking longship and embarks with an unlikely crew. Some are her friends, others are strangers, and she suspects one hides a secret. While seeking answers in the Scottish Hebrides, Pippa unearths the cause for Jamie’s abduction: Kolruna, a Norse witch, blames Pippa’s family for the death of her lover and persecutes them in revenge.

    Caught in a whirlwind of deception, Pippa must decide between relying on Margret’s obscure blood magic to face the Night Mare, or embrace the risk of finding Jamie alone, before the vengeful Kolruna hunts Pippa herself and she loses her brother forever.


    Pippa rolled the dice and winked.

    She slid a tafl pawn three spaces across the checkered board, eyeing the prize knife. Elaborate scrollwork snaked around its handle and a curious rune decorated its blade. Her older brother, Jamie, would love to add it to his collection. He always sought weapons with character.

    A ruffian sat across from her and scratched the faded scars puckering his nose. He leaned over the game board and rolled the dice. Six marks. Sailors trying to earn some quick coin exchanged bets and told him to move this piece or that. Everyone shouted drunken suggestions at Pippa too, except for a stranger by the fire. He stood apart from the crowd, but watched the game…and her.

    She ignored them all, because she already had a strategy to capture the King-piece and needed to focus. Her opponent moved a white pawn by six squares and muttered something in Norse. His sharp gaze met hers with a look that said “That’ll show you!”

    She’d relish his moment of shock when he lost.

    “Hmm, tricky move,” Pippa said. She bowed her head to hide an impish smile. Jamie had taught her how to master tafl, which her opponent foolishly agreed to play. He’d originally suggested a test of riddles, but the last time Pippa attempted a riddle contest she lost a silver bracelet.

    She scanned the mead hall, making sure Jamie wasn't around, because she wanted to surprise him with the weapon. He also didn’t need to know she was gambling again.
    Many young women played tafl—Pippa wasn’t an exception—but she did it often. Maybe too often. Her father would have been furious at her. Furious, but proud when she won the knife. Playing the game required close scrutiny to anticipate future moves, and during those brief, intense points of concentration, Pippa forgot her father’s crazy beard and warm smile. The memories disappeared.

    At least for that moment.

    She lifted a cup of frothy ale, and the faint scent of aged oak conjured images of summertime mischief with her brother, when they had snuck a taste of ale from the brewer’s barrels. She drank it with a single swallow and banged the emptied cup next to the game board. Everyone around her cheered. She reached for a nearby flagon and refilled her cup. Pippa could enjoy two drinks, maybe three, without muddling her senses.

    She turned back to the board and rolled the dice. The ruffian was an idiot, but he needed to think he had a chance. Otherwise, he might end the game. She started to reach for a red pawn, hesitated, made a show of sighing and tugging on her bottom lip, and then reached for another. Pippa moved it seven squares, diagonally. Her heart thrummed, hoping he’d fallen for her act.

    She tapped her foot to the warbled rhythm of a panpipe, thrilled with her imminent win. With the ruffian’s turn came a squall of suggestions from the crowd, yet the stranger by the fire remained aloof, fussing with voluminous robes until they lay just right. A heavy hood framed his face, but her eyes were riveted to him, shadows and light carving out the sharp planes of his jaw. He rubbed his chin with the tip of his thumb, flashing gold rings on his fingers. Their eyes locked, and she squirmed under his stare as his mouth twisted into a taunting grin.

    The stranger was a diversion, and Pippa had to stay alert and pay attention to the game. Her fingers tightened on a red pawn.

    The ruffian cracked his fat knuckles. “I need a break.” His voice sounded harsh, like the jagged edges of raw, unforged steel scraping against stone. A raider, no doubt. Fresh from a viking and just passing through, like everyone else in the buzzing mead hall. He clearly didn’t expect to lose to a sixteen-year-old girl.

    She pretended to shift uncomfortably on the wooden bench. “Já, I could use time to think on my next move.”

    He slapped his knee in agreement and retreated to the fire with his friends.
    She would have won two turns ago, if he hadn’t bumbled into a lucky move. If she won the game, she’d claim his knife. If he won the game…

    She shuddered, determined to avoid that possibility.

    Pippa stole another wary glance at the hooded stranger.

    With a flick of his wrist, the stranger beckoned the innkeeper to him. They spoke, huddled, heads bent. The innkeeper, a short man with a beard like a bird’s nest, cocked his head toward Pippa.

    The stranger smiled at her and nodded. Pippa looked away, reaching for her ale and burning to know why she had roused his attention. She held the drink to her lips and watched him over the rim of her cup.

    He hardly noticed the girl who served him a horn of mead, and then shooed her away with a careless swish of his hand. The stranger moved to a remote corner, away from the music and gaming and girls casting suggestive glances. With his back to the crowd and his eyes fixed on Pippa, he waved a lazy hand over the mouth of his horn, and a thin column of mead coiled up from the vessel.

    She blinked. With a quick, twirling finger, the mead made a loop in the air and wove between his fingers before splashing back into the horn.

    Pippa dropped her cup. Ale drenched her lap and trickled down her trousers. Disbelief must have shown on her face, because the stranger chuckled and tipped his horn to her. She wiped away the ale and fidgeted with her cloak, not understanding what she had witnessed. She had seen extraordinary, incredulous things, but nothing like twirling mead, and judging by the crowd’s indifference, she was the only one who had witnessed the stranger’s magic.

    She worried her lip, thinking she shouldn’t have come alone. She may have enjoyed too much ale after all. Though, the room wasn’t tilting and the faces around her weren’t smeared in a blend of drunken color.

    Ale soaked her shirt, too. Even if Jamie didn’t find her in the mead hall, he’d certainly smell it on her.

    A rowdy lout scooted down the bench to sit beside her. He leaned close—too close—and draped an arm around her shoulders. The lout smelled like pickled fish, and she crinkled her nose when he slurred gibberish in her ear. Pippa might have shrugged him off if she wasn’t so stunned by the stranger’s magic.

    A heavy hand landed on her back.

    She turned to find Jamie looming over her, his face scrunched in an unpleasant grimace. He flung the lout’s arm off her shoulders.

    “What are you doing here?” Jamie asked, sounding both relieved and frustrated. He didn't wait for a reply. “You’re leaving.”

    He had no reason to be upset. “I'm fine,” Pippa said. “Besides, I have a present for you.”

    “She's not going anywhere until the game’s finished,” the scarred ruffian said, emerging from the far corner. His eyes flicked from her to Jamie, who returned an unreadable, glassy stare.

    “You.” Jamie pointed at Pippa and then the door. “Out.”

    “If I win I get his knife.” She jutted her chin toward the game board, wanting him to see how close she was to victory. “And if I win in less than fifty moves, I get his fox fur as well.”

    “What if you lose?”

    Pippa’s cheeks warmed.

    Sunday, July 16, 2017

    1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Alyssa C Rev 2

    Name: Alyssa C
    Genre: YA Fantasy
    Title: The Winter King

    Sixteen-year-old Katka has always loved stories about her kingdom of Trisestry, particularly of the warring Guilds and her king’s missing heart. Wishing she’d been born with the extraordinary abilities of the Guild of Alchemists, Katka’s ordinary talents lie in linguistics. So when three Royal Alchemists arrive at her uncle’s bookshop in need of a translator, Katka seizes the opportunity to aid them however she can. But when her uncle is taken by members of the rival Guild of Scientists, Katka must work with the alchemists—the surly guild master, his sharp-tongued second, and a charming prodigy apprentice—to free him.

    Katka quickly discovers that her uncle’s capture was not a simple matter of guild politics. As she is thrust into a conflict involving the myth of an immortal queen, a burgeoning war with neighboring Peshta, and her own king’s stolen heart, she begins to question which tales she’s been told are actually true. Even as she grows closer to witty apprentice Evzen, Katka begins to uncover secrets that make it difficult to determine who to trust. With war brewing between lands and guilds, Katka must discover the worth of her talents in order to save her uncle—and her kingdom—before it’s too late.


    I was just a child when I first heard of the king’s stolen heart.

    Gossip often entered the Princess and Ploughman, my uncle’s bookshop where I lived and worked. None had ever been so intriguing as this.

    “Is it true that our king has no heart?” I prodded my uncle that night. We’d just closed the shop; I tidied the shelves while he traveled back and forth from the stockroom with armloads of books. “And that’s why he’s going to start a war and why the guilds each want to be his favorite?”

    My uncle couldn’t help but laugh, rich and loud. I had been waiting until the shop closed to broach the subject, but it seemed he had noticed my skittishness.

    “This is what has got you so agitated, little mouse?”

    I nodded, a bit stung by his mirth.

    He set down a stack of books and braced himself against the nearest shelf. As time went on, Uncle Dusan grew steadily rounder as I grew more nearsighted and only slightly upward. “Well, it was about ten years ago,” he began, “just after you were born. It was—”

    “So then it’s true?” I whispered.

    “I never said so,” Uncle Dusan said in a way that assured me it was true. “It was ten or so years ago. Winter, with a thick snow such as we have not seen since. The canals were iced over and frosty snow clung to every spire. From the hills the city’s colors looked like a platter of sugared fruits.”

    It was an enchanting image, but I was brimming with anticipation. “What about the king?” I insisted.
    Uncle Dusan made a contemplative face. “It was a bone-chilling night when it happened, so it is said. Late in the night while the city slept.”

    I found a perch on a tall pile of books and settled in, anticipation fluttering in my chest.

    “Someone inside the castle worked a dark enchantment and escaped into the cold with one thing—the very heart of our king.”

    I leaned forward and nearly upset the books beneath me. “Who did it, Uncle?”

    He only shook his head. “To this day no one is sure. It was the night of the royal masquerade ball, then an annual event, so of course the castle was filled with diplomats and nobility, ambassadors and tradesmen from across the world. The perfect opportunity for anyone cunning enough to claim it.”

    The idea was equally intriguing and overwhelming. So many people from so many places—it was little wonder no one had yet uncovered the culprit. I sent my uncle a shrewd look. I knew he was a wise man, for anyone who commits their days to the running of a bookshop can be no fool.  “Who do you think it was? Who stole the king’s heart?”

    Uncle Dusan turned his head and looked past the front of the shop, out the wide windows and into the twilit street. “It’s difficult to guess. Of course the Guild of Scientists practically declared war on the Guild of Alchemists the next day, once the news had spread.” He stood and picked up a few more books to be stocked, slotting them haphazardly wherever there was room. “Others thought Peshtan spies were to blame, or their allies...” After sliding a book into the last bit of open shelf space he glanced out the windows again, then suddenly came out of the reverie and met my eye. “And now it is suppertime.” He smiled. “Some stew on this chilly autumn evening?”


    For some time afterward I entertained childish fantasies of being the one to return the king’s heart. When not working I was left to entertain myself, and spent much of my time reading in the curtained loft that served as my bedroom. Gleaning inspiration from the tales in many languages that I borrowed off the shelves and translated with insatiable hunger, I crafted elaborate scenarios for myself and my friends—the warriors and sorcerers, peasants and princesses of my favorite stories. Once, on a daring mission at twelve years old, I went sneaking into the stockroom where I was not allowed. My imagined adventure dissolved around me as I became distracted by the papers with strange symbols and mysterious maps littering the long wooden table. I set down my candle, climbing onto the table to better peruse the documents.

    That was how Uncle Dusan found me asleep hours later, curled on the table like a cat, my spectacles mushed against my face. Language books were strewn about where I’d left them as I attempted to decode the cryptic messages, which turned out to be dry alchemical theory.

    “Katka—child!” he sputtered, then collected himself. “What are you doing on that table?”

    I nearly cried, ashamed at my blatant disobedience. My uncle was wonderful to me and I dreaded disappointing him. “I saw the papers and wanted to read them,” I explained, adjusting my spectacles and gathering the books into my arms. I expected a reprimand, perhaps a padlock on the storeroom door and a reminder that I should know better at my age.

    Uncle Dusan stood in the doorway surveying the scene and then, to my shock, began to laugh. “Voracious. You shouldn’t read everything that is in front of you, child,” he said. “Words have great power, but they hold danger too. Some books are better left closed, yes?”

    I nodded and made my way down from the table, balancing the books in my arms.

    “Don’t those belong here?” Uncle Dusan asked.

    “No,” I said, perplexed. “I brought them in to translate.”

    He was very still for a moment. “Translate what?”

    I turned back to indicate the documents on the table. “Those. The alchemy essays with the strange recipes.”

    He came into the room, shucking off his large overcoat and standing by the table. “Sit,” he commanded, an odd gleam in his eye as he perused the papers and selected one.

    I didn’t know whether to feel excitement or dread as I set down the books and clambered back onto the large table.

    He handed me the chosen page and lit more candles, positioning them to give me better light. “Can you read this?”

    I studied the text as a cat watches an ignorant mouse. It was a long passage broken toward the end by strange symbols that didn’t seem to be letters. The words themselves looked like Zemyan, of the northern mercantile lake country or one of its colonies. I checked the spines of the books beside me, Uncle Dusan watching my every move with childlike wonder, and opened the Zemyan dictionary. After referencing a few unfamiliar words I was able to read the passage aloud without hesitation:

    “Research at the University of Zemya has found that the practice of medical alchemy may greatly complement conventional medicine. Most recently, Zemyan alchemists have undertaken such experiments as—”

    As I read, Uncle Dusan put his head in his hands.

    I set the page down, unaware of my ability’s implications. “Uncle?”

    He raised his head, eyes shining. “All these months I have been collecting these works in the hopes of finding a translator… and now I find there has been one in my own home all along?” He reached across the table and seized my shoulders. “Child, your skill will be useful indeed!” Then he sobered. “But heed what I have said—some words are better left unread, and some,” he placed a hand on the Zemyan paper I had put down, “are better left unremembered.”

    1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Yeung Rev 2

    Name: Adelle Yeung
    Genre: YA historical urban fantasy
    Title: The House with Two Faces


    In 1920, eighteen-year-old Paula Mendez performs magic tricks on the streets of San Francisco, dreaming of starring on her own ritzy stage. Most bystanders tip her with a coin or two, but seeing promise in her talents, one dame urges Paula to audition as a famous magician’s new lovely assistant. Paula refuses; she has more pride than to stand on stage as a breathing end table.
    The dame reveals herself to be a floating witch’s head. Her still-warm body lies somewhere within the magician’s theater, but having been magically banished, the witch orders Paula to infiltrate the theater in her stead. A cursed collar trades Paula’s obedience with her life.

    To save her own neck, Paula aces the audition and secures a role within the magician’s theater. She must avoid suspicion while locating the witch’s body, or risk being thrown out and banished, herself. If Paula fails to help the witch reclaim her body, the curse will sever Paula’s head. 


    Polino specialized in bringing his headless dove back to life.

    In the center of Union Square, the teenage magician raised his bird’s detached head for all to see. The small crowd gasped and cracked uncertain smiles. Some huddled to shield each other from the chill of the fog, or perhaps to offer comfort. Polino’s grin meant to assure them that he had everything under control. Anyone could harm a helpless animal, but only a magnificent magician could reverse the damage.

    Polino waved a red silk handkerchief over Merlin’s head and the wooden box containing the rest of the ring-necked dove. With one last dramatic flourish, Polino swept the handkerchief away and revealed the unharmed Merlin, his gray wings spread as if to say, “Ta-dah!

    The onlookers erupted into applause. Women in cloche hats sighed with relief and delight. Men in fedoras and bowlers nodded at Polino as they dropped spare change in the magician’s newsboy cap. Polino beamed and bowed at the bystanders, but his smile faded at the sight of the woman in the periwinkle coat. She never tipped or clapped.

    Every day for the past week, she had watched Polino perform, her rose-kissed lips curled into a perpetually pleasant smile. It wasn’t a condescending one, nor was it overly amused. It was knowing.

    After all, she was the only one in the audience who knew Polino’s greatest illusion: he was actually a girl.

    Paula hadn’t thought anyone would recognize the charming “Polino” as the same tomboyish magician who frequented Union Square, but her disguise was scant: an added hat, bound chest, and deeper voice.

    The first time the woman approached, she had promised to keep Polino’s gender a secret, but Paula couldn’t help distrusting her. Unlike many ladies, who wore their hair short and stuffed into berets or cloches, this woman’s sleek black hair flowed freely down her back, and her head moved as if her shoulders had a mind of their own. Her striking eyes that matched her coat seemed to glow.

    As the crowd trickled away, Paula snatched the handkerchief to gather her props. She clenched her teeth to suppress a groan as the woman sauntered over.

    “You can still make the auditions on time.” The woman’s voice was melodic and syrupy sweet. It would’ve worked magic on the men who stared at her, but Paula did not share their desires. Her everyday reminders of Master Mortison’s open casting call grated Paula’s patience.

    Two blocks south of Union Square, on Ellis Street, the glamorous, glittering lights of the Cort Theater illuminated the weekly show posters of the handsome magician. Pride refused to disgrace Paula’s talent by auditioning as a nameless assistant who prettied the stage like living furniture. Moreover, Paula was keen on making a name for herself without a man’s aid.

    Maintaining her boyish tone, but straining politeness, Paula said, “Thank you for the reminder.”

    She would’ve liked to say, “Beat it!” but Paula didn’t want to shoot her career in the foot. Infamy spread through the streets like San Francisco fog.

    Paula secured Merlin into his brass traveling cage, packed her props, and stuffed the coins from her hat into her jacket pockets. She wiggled the cap over her dark hair and said, “If you’re going to audition, I wish you luck.” She clasped her trunk shut. Its wheels crunched against damp gravel as she left her post at the Dewey Monument.

    “You’re wasting potential, girlie.”

    Paula forced a smile and dropped her masculine voice. Polino had left his stage, so Paula needn’t prolong the act. “I appreciate your advice. I do. But I won’t settle for a lesser position just to perform in a ritzy theater.”

    “Under Master Mortison’s employment, you won’t have to worry about scrounging enough coins to pay next month’s rent.”

    “Go razz some other gal, why don’t you?” Shaking her head, Paula started down Geary Street. When she looked over her shoulder, the woman was still smiling at her. Paula shuddered. What an odd bird.

    Paula’s pockets jingled as she rolled her trunk down the sidewalk. The weight of the coins stretched her jacket. It was more than she earned when she performed as a girl, and Paula knew she could pay December’s rent on time. She longed for the day when she could make a living without hiding her gender.

    Before turning the corner to her apartment, Paula glanced toward Union Square. The strange woman was nowhere in sight, and Paula’s shoulders sagged with both relief and dread. Though she had rid herself of one pest, she’d soon have to cross another. She could already hear the croak of Mister O’Brien, her landlord. The old grump didn’t have the heart to evict her, despite his nagging to pay rent on time. Paula usually ignored him until she could slip him enough loose change.

    “Miss Mendez!” his voice graveled from beyond the shadows of the front desk. “Hard at work, I hear.” He meant the clinking of her pockets.

    “I paid you off last Tuesday,” Paula said.

    “Well, good afternoon to you too.”

    With Merlin’s cage underarm, Paula clunked her trunk up the dark staircase, recalling the prior Tuesday. Women all over the country could vote for the first time, but Paula was three years from the age of majority.

    Still, on her eighteenth birthday, Paula had filed for emancipation from her foster mother, Margaret Sullivan. Paula bore no resentment for the woman who had raised her since she was four, but Mama Sully struggled with Paula’s nine foster siblings, and Paula figured that making any money at all—no matter how much she struggled—meant she could sign her own lease.

    Paula didn’t consider the tiny, dim apartment a real home, but it was somewhere she could sleep, and Merlin didn’t complain about the tight quarters or the lingering odor of laundry that had never dried properly. Paula released Merlin from his traveling cage and spread seed for him over the kitchen’s folding table. She emptied her pockets into a ceramic container with the rest of her money and grinned at the small heap of tarnished, linty coins. One day, she’d have enough to rent a theater.

    She undressed on the way to her wardrobe, longing for the release of an unbound chest. Tight cloth unraveled from her flattened breasts, and Paula slouched forth with a sigh as the last inch curled into a roll.

    As she hung up her clothes, Paula considered her closing act. Reattaching Merlin’s head was becoming her signature illusion, but Polino wasn’t a one-trick pony.

    Paula’s best acts featured Merlin the dove as her assistant. Whenever he was visible, Paula ensured he had a task, like pulling a handkerchief from her pocket or choosing a member from the crowd. He had no reason to complain he was a mere prop. He also couldn’t talk.

    Before she managed to pull a nightgown over her head, Paula jumped at the sound of her front door unlocking and stumbled against her wardrobe.

    “Who’s there?” she gasped.

    She hastened to cover herself properly and twirled to face the door. Merlin flew atop her head. Paula grabbed the nearest weapon—a black umbrella—and thrust it forth like a rapier.

    The woman in the periwinkle coat stood beneath dusty incandescent light. She whimpered through that eerie, pleasant smile, looking at Paula and not at the piece of paper she scrawled on against the door. Her head was twisted backwards.

    Paula shrieked and stumbled backward, crashing onto the floor.

    1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Choi Rev 2

    Name: Stacy Choi
    Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
    Title: Deity Girl


    When sixteen-year-old Mel cracks the lid of Pandora’s Box, ancient magic spills out. It turns the small town of Belleview into a prison and traps all the newly transformed townspeople within the magical boundaries. Now everything from witches to unicorns to ghouls walks the streets. Horrified by, Mel hides the box, vowing it will never be opened again.

    When Mel’s finally secret comes out, someone decides they want Pandora’s Box for themselves. To get it they take the one thing that matters most to Mel: her best friend, Milt. So when Milt’s life is threatened in exchange for the box, she has to make a choice—save the world from potential destruction or save her only friend in the world.  

    Having been told only she could open Pandora’s Box, Mel hands it over, confident she can get it back before any real damage can be done. She doesn’t consider that she’s been lied to, that there is someone else that can open the box. Desperate to close it once again, Mel teams up with some unlikely allies in a battle for Pandora’s Box. But with the magic already spreading beyond the boundaries of Belleview, it may be too late.

    First 1250 words:

    I flipped open the box of Della’s Donuts sitting on my lap and pulled out a plain glazed. My fourth donut of the morning. Despite eating enough sugar on a daily basis to satisfy a horse, my figure hadn’t changed. Not since the first time I died.

    Not changed much, anyhow.

    Rubbing a hand across my stomach, I plucked at the t-shirt pulling a little tight across my middle. Didn’t matter. When I died again—and that’d probably be soon considering who I just robbed—I’d come back looking exactly like my half-starved sixteen-year-old self of three years ago, with the worst haircut of my life.

    I glared through the film of magic rippling along the town border, between me and the buyer’s car. Three hours and he still wasn’t back.

    Rockng forward on the bus stop bench that no buses ran to anymore, I peered down the empty road. The direction the buyer had gone

     Still nothing.       
    Just a rusty sign warning outsiders that they’d crossed into Belleview. As if the dingy gray unicorn scratching its rump against the post didn’t give that away. Baring big square teeth at me, it heaved from the sign post, and clopped away.

    Shaking my head, I continued to stare down the empty road.

    Since cars didn’t work in Belleview, the buyer headed into town on foot to meet with my business partner and BFF, Milt, hours ago. What could be taking so long?

    Worry needled me. Pulse thumping a little faster, my heart knocked against my ribs, like a moth trapped in a jar. What if the deal went sideways? Could something have happened to Milt?

    No. What had gotten into me?

    I did the dirty work for a reason. Dying sucked, but I’d come back. Not Milt. He didn’t have my not-so-fun party trick. If something ever happened to him, he’d be gone forever.

    An icy breeze raked its way across my bare arms, feeling like frozen fingernails. Cold by Florida standards, normal for the magic-altered weather patterns of Belleview. I tucked my legs closer to my body, folding them to sit cross-legged.

    I’d give the buyer five more minutes, that was it. Feeling around in the half-empty donut box, I grabbed another.


    Jaw freezing mid-chew, I turned toward the voice and slumped in relief. Just the buyer. I’d been so distracted I hadn’t heard him coming. A mistake that could’ve cost me big time.

    Had it been Tomas, the Corpse Witch enforcer, chances were I’d already be dead.

    My question came out with a mouthful of crumbs, “Payment made?”

    “Yeah,” the man croaked, nerves clogging his throat.

    Licking powdered sugar from my fingertips, I extended my hand. Sugar-free fingers wiggling impatiently.

    “Oh, sorry.” The man fumbled a walkie-talkie from his jacket pocket and scooted close enough to hand it to me before scurrying away. He pulled out a yellow-silk handkerchief and dabbed it along his receding hairline.

    I didn’t blame him for being twitchy. He either had to have huge titanium balls or no brains to be here, a regular human with no way to protect himself, trying to steal from the Corpse Witches—witches whose magic dealt with the dead.

    My money was on the no brains thing.

    Whatever Twitchy here and his employer planned, it wouldn’t work. It took Reaper Weed and a Corpse Witch to raise a ghoul. Since they’d never find a Corpser outside of Belleview, the world wasn’t in danger of being invaded by ghouls.

    “Are you…” he stuttered, the question not quite rolling off his tongue.

    I arched a brow. “Am I what?”

    Leaves crinkled beneath his loafers as he rocked from foot to foot. “I heard you were a zombie.” The man’s unsettling pale blue eyes traveled from the frizzy mess of Crayola-red hair on my head, down to my crossed legs, and back. He stilled. “You don’t look much like a zombie.”

    “That’s because I’m not.” Scowling, I tried to run my fingers through the snarled mess on my head.

    “So, what are you?”

    “Not dead.” I gave him my best crazy girl grin.

    There wasn’t a word for what I was, all because of the magic trapped inside Pandora’s Box that spilled out when I cracked the lid. The magic Turned or killed everyone it touched—it did a bit of both to me.

    “But I heard…”

    Knowing Tomas could show up any minute I cut him off.  “Didn’t you know anything about this place before your boss sent you here?”

    “Sure, but come on. Who’s going to believe it without seeing it?”

    I snorted. “Stupid people that come here and get themselves killed. Or worse, Turned.”

    My finger mashed the little black button on the side of the walkie before Twitchy could ask anything else. “Milt?”

    No answer.

    If he left the walkie behind and went to Imogen’s for lunch without me, we were gonna have words

    “Milt?” I spoke into the walkie again.

    Still no answer.

    I rolled my lower lip between my teeth. The job felt wrong from the start and this solidified my feelings about it. Milt always answered.

    Protocol was to check in with Milt and make sure everything went alright. This would be the first time I’d left a job without doing that, but I had to get back and check on him. He should be at the warehouse by now.

    I slid off the bench, slipped the walkie into my back pocket, and tucked the donut box under my arm.

    “You can’t leave yet!” Twitchy shouted, but I was already walking away. “We had a deal. Where’s my stuff?”

    “In the tree next to the bench,” I answered without turning to see if he found it. Either he would or he wouldn’t.

    The fwip, fwip. fwip of Twitchy’s slick soled loafers slipping on the tree trunk, along with some creative cursing, told me he’d spotted it. I widened my steps, moving faster, leaving the sounds of the man’s struggle to climb behind.

    Before long the road fell quiet, just the crunch of fall leaves beneath my feet and the harsh rasp of my breath from the pace I’d set.

    “Mel.” Milt’s muffled voice crackled from my back pocket.

    Relief rolled through me and I tugged the walkie from my jeans. “Geez, about time. I’ve been having a panic...”

    “Boomerang,” He wheezed out his nickname for me, cutting me off mid-sentence. Usually all sunshine and laughter, my best friend sounded desperate and out of breath.

    My hand clenched the donut box, crumpling the cardboard sides.

    The crack of flesh connecting with flesh came through the walkie before it went dead.

    I didn’t need to see the action to know what that sound meant. A distinct sound I’d heard—and felt—plenty of times before. Jolting into a run, my feet kicked up a cloud of leaves and gravel, terror driving me faster than I’d ever moved before. I leaped over fallen trees and barreled through overgrown shrubs.

    Close. Less than a mile from the warehouse. He just had to hang on til I got there. Had to be Corpses Witches. Payback for stealing their Reaper Weed. Milt didn’t steal it, but that wouldn’t matter if they found out we were working together.

    As a null, Milt didn’t have any magic of his own, but magic couldn’t hurt him either. Magic raised the ghouls from the grave. If any ghouls touched him, they’d drop like flies. So he had a chance.