Sunday, July 2, 2017

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Alyssa C

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

A thousand years ago, there lived three sisters. The eldest was called Kazi, and with her practical mind she founded an order of calculators and rationalizers. The second was Teta, who established a priesthood of zealots and sinners. The youngest sister was Libuse, who built an empire. Hers were the tinkers and magicians who dealt in dreams and madness.
It has been my favorite story since I first dared climb the rolling ladder in my uncle’s bookshop and take down the largest volume, which happened to be an illustrated history of our kingdom of Trisestry. Amidst tales of shifting borders and grand campaigns was the simple story of three sisters who founded the great kingdom. Libuse, with her army of magic philosophers, was my fixation. An illustration of the sisters covers an entire spread, with gilded borders: in the middle, the three stand beside one another, their father the warrior seated at their feet. Brilliant-haired Kazi with her papers and instruments is to one side; golden Teta holds her holy book between hands clasped in prayer opposite her sister. Libuse alone is empty-handed in the center. Her arms are raised in some unseen incantation as the future kingdom’s misty silhouette looms behind her coal-dark head. That first time I opened the book her imperious gaze struck me so that I could not turn the page. I took in her fearsome stance as she called on elemental powers, the arms exposed from her trailing sleeves the same hue of earth baked in strong sun as my own arms, and decided that hers would be the legacy I would follow.
Of course, that is not the way of nature, to let oneself choose one’s path. At least, not entirely—I learned at a young age that those who deal in the elemental arts are bestowed such gifts by accidents of nature, so there was no hope for me. As a child who lives in her uncle’s bookshop is wont to do, I read furiously about the things I could not experience firsthand. Besides the history of Trisestry there were treatises on practical alchemical concepts, atlases of the world and its various sects of the elemental arts, and best of all ancient lexicons and languages of faraway lands, transcribed and bound in neat, jewel-colored volumes. And as a child of Trisestry I of course studied the scientific and religious arts as well, though less so the former, as the school of science has long been in conflict with that of alchemy. As I grew I came to understand the complex dynamics of my world and of the world outside of the bookshop. I saw and heard much, crouched behind shelves or perched in the loft where I slept. A bookshop is the kind of place where those from every part of society may gather and mingle, tryst and gossip. It was in this hub of a home that I heard of the ongoing conflict with neighboring Peshta, of the Guild of Scientists’ worries with the ‘spawn of Libuse’ expanding through the city, and much more that was truthfully of little concern to me. It was also where, on one afternoon I shall never forget, I first heard of the king’s stolen heart.
“Is it true that our king has no heart?” I’d prodded my uncle that evening after closing. I tidied the shelves while he traveled back and forth from the stockroom with armloads of books. “And that’s why we’re almost at war and why the three guilds are always trying to outdo each other?”
My uncle couldn’t help but laugh, rich and loud. I had been waiting until the shop closed to broach the mysterious subject, and he had noticed my skittishness despite my best efforts.
“This is what has got you so agitated, little mouse?”
I nodded seriously, 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 said slowly, “just after you were born. It was—”
“So then it’s true?” I put in wonderingly.
“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 too had experienced the city in wintertime. “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 intrigued and overwhelmed me. So many people from so many places—it was little wonder no one had yet uncovered the culprit. I eyed my uncle shrewdly. 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. Some even blamed the queen, that she should have guarded the king’s heart more closely.” 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 a few years afterward, I had childish aspirations of being the one to return the king’s heart to him. Left alone in the bookshop on evenings when Uncle Dusan attended meetings of the Merchant Confederation, I would craft elaborate adventures for myself and my friends—the warriors and sorcerers, peasants and princesses of my favorite books. By candlelight I quested between tall shelves for the heart of our king, outsmarting dastardly Peshtan highwaymen and riding triumphantly to the castle with my entourage and our royal spoils in tow. Once, on a particularly daring mission, I went sneaking into the stockroom where I was not normally allowed, my hero the clever Libuse at my side, only to become distracted by the papers with strange symbols and mysterious maps littering the long wooden table.


  1. Is this a prologue? There's a lot of background information here. Structurally, I don't think this is the right place to start. There's a lot of rich background here, but it's all talking about what had been. Where does the main character stand in the story, and what happens to her? I imagine that she gets swept up in what she thought was all just a myth. So how does that happen?

    As for the writing itself, most of it is written passively and tells rather than shows. The tense shifts from past to present in the second paragraph. While overall I get a sense of "*~*mystical and pretty*~*" I would like to see some more atmosphere in the description of the bookshop. I see the skeleton of the architecture, but I can't actually see the shop itself.

    Let me know if you have any questions and if you would like me to clarify anything :) Good luck on revisions!

    1. Hi Adelle, thanks for your comments. I know it's a slower start for a story, and you were right about her getting swept up in things—I'm still working on if I can have that begin sooner without providing background about the world and her upbringing first. It's a case of things really getting going in the next page or two, unfortunately!

    2. I think you could have her getting swept up in everything earlier and maybe just a touch of the background info. Maybe try what Laura suggests and focus on more of the king or the sisters? You could always provide more background information as needed, but try to avoid an info dump at the beginning. Why not try starting right where things start getting really interesting to the MC and work from there? You might feel like there's a lot of background missing if you do that, but it's a starting point, and the readers might be more invested in HER rather than the fairy tale. Good luck revising :D

  2. Hi, Alyssa! While I do think you have established an intriguing world here, I am going to agree with Adelle's comments that perhaps this is not the correct place to start your story. There was so much background information I was having a difficult time getting grounded in the story. I couldn't tell what might have been the past and what was happening now, or if any of it was happening now.

    Again, I really enjoyed the world you set up. It felt very fairytale-esque, but here I will agree with Adelle again. I wanted to SEE the world, not have you tell me what I should be seeing. For instance, when Uncle Dunstan is telling his story, the picture he paints is wonderful! As a reader I need to see that in the scenes. I would have loved for you to have described the shop in this fashion.

    I am looking forward to seeing how these pages progress! Please let me know if you have any questions about my comments. Good luck!

    1. Hi Stacy, thanks for the feedback. I wonder if some of the confusion about the timing occurred because it's told in the past tense. The narrator is a teenager telling about moments from her childhood, and the story catches up to her present a few pages later. Would it help to establish her current age sooner?

    2. I think the other readers have made some great points. I expect it feels daunting, but I do believe it would be much more interesting to begin with the point where things begin to move, and then sprinkle the background in through thoughts, memories, and dialogue.

      I believe this connects to your question about establishing her age sooner. I admit to having a moment of wondering if this is MG (even though it is labeled as YA). You are probably right, and that is what created some of the confusion. Though, like the others I assumed it was a prologue. I wanted to connect to the MC, be drawn into her world, and I think that is something that might have helped.

      I hope this helps and can't see where your story goes! Feel free to ask if you have any questions on my comments. Good luck!

  3. Dear Alyssa,

    You’ve established a high fantasy tone here, both with the writing style and the elements of the tale you weave. From this initial glimpse, we see that the land the girl lives in is troubled. We also see a girl charmed by the magic of stories. She climbs the rolling ladder to find the stories that most interest her — and what reader doesn’t love the idea of a rolling ladder? You have an imaginative setting for an imaginative character.

    The other readers thus far have pointed out that you have a lot of telling in this section, which can be the case with fairy tale kinds of novels. Still, stories are also about what’s happening to the character in the moment, often depicted through scenes. Like your other readers, I think you could offer a bit more of the girl’s actual story.

    My overall impression is that these first pages need focus. You’ve offered many details about the world, imaginative details. But which of these really are important, particularly for this part of the story? The girl reads of three girls, yet we’re not sure if they’re historical or legendary. We’re also not sure why the magic philosophers/army might be important. Can one become a magic philosopher/soldier? Is this what your protagonist secretly longs for or plans to do? Then we hear about the king and his lost heart. While this is an evocative image, I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the story of the girls and their specific powers. His lost heart seems to connect to these vast socio-political problems, but not anything that actually relates to the protagonist in the bookshop. We ultimately discover that she learned of the king’s issue when she was much younger, and she crafted her play-adventures using the king and his heart. But does this mean that once she’s older, the age she’ll be in the novel you’re writing, she’s realized that the adventure relating to the king is beyond the situation she actually lives in? Or is she going to enter a situation where the king, his heart, and this battle are a day-to-day part of her life? If this last is the case, why not start the story there?

    I think you need to make your tale more intimate and personal more quickly. For example, if we could tell from her interactions with her uncle and/or people shopping at the store that she chafes at this small life, that she wishes to go on the adventures she reads of in books, that she might even have some half-formed plan to have an adventurous life, we might understand that she longs to be more like the characters she reads about. And if she sees and/or encounters magic philosophers and/or their army, and she is dreaming of or striving to join the magic philosophers, her story would really seem to be beginning. An alternative would be if she finds a book or encounters a person who gives her a clue about where to find the king’s heart, and she has to choose to use this clue or not. Then she would be starting to engage with the king’s story. Right now, I can tell she likes to read and I can tell she hopes to have adventures, but I can’t tell what her story is or might be, nor can I tell how it relates to all the information you’ve provided here.

    Maybe none of what I’ve suggested is the direction you plan to head in. That’s fine! Yet then, I think, you could construct a start that begins more of the direction you do plan. Perhaps her adventure has nothing to do with what happens here? So then you cut either the story of the three girls or the story of the king, and simply use one of these to show her obsession with stories? Then launch her out on her own journey? (Whether you choose the king or the three girls will depend on which has more to say about her, her obsessions, her desire, her path.)

    I know this is rather a lot, but you also have a lot to work with. You simply need to shape and focus all this lovely material.

    Take care.

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for your suggestions. I did struggle a bit with this beginning because I felt that throwing the reader right into the main action of the story would be too much. The legend of the three sisters and the story about the king are sort of at the crux of the plot, which is why I wanted to open with them. I'll see if I can find a way to reach the inciting incident more quickly without losing the reader along the way.

  4. Hi Alyssa,

    That opening paragraph – is it really your opening paragraph for chapter one, or a prologue, or other?

    Your entire first paragraph has a lot of telling. I believe it’s the MC looking at a book, right? And you are feeding the reader information about the history of her world. I think it would be better to let this slowly unfurl through the course of the story. The story is about the MC, the narrator. That is the person I’d like to hear about. The second paragraph, though well-written, is similar. I think one goal of the first pages is to immerse the MC (and reader) in a scene. In a moment. Even though this is written in present tense, it sounds like past perfect because we are talking about things that the MC did in his/her past.

    By the time I reach the third paragraph, I realized I still didn’t know the MC's name and there’s only one reference to her gender. It would help – me, at least – quite a bit to ground the reader in those things earlier just because it helps close the narrative distance and helps keep a tight POV.

    Things pick up with the dialogue between the MC and her uncle, but there’s a lot of adverb usage and telling. The uncle speaks very formally and I am wondering if he is a very educated man? It also gives a flavor of the high fantasy that I believe your story is, and that’s a good thing. The dialogue content, to me, seems like another opportunity to provide more information.

    There’s a lot going on, between the three sisters, Merchant Confederation, Peshtan spies, the Guilds. I can see you put a ton of work into building your world and expect it to be rich with detail. What I’d love to learn more the MC. Did we ever learn her name? Dusan called her little mouse, but I didn’t catch her name (or I’m terrible and I missed it!). What’s life like for her? What does she want? What are her aspirations? If you can frame an opening scene around her then I think everything else about your world can be included more organically.

    I hope this helps! Feel free to ask questions!

    1. Hi Danielle, thanks for your thoughts. It wasn't just you—I actually did realize that my MC's name is never said in this portion of the story! I'll focus on adding more of her in for my revision. I have had slight issues with my love of narrative distance in the past, so thanks for pointing that out!

  5. Hi Alyssa!

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I tend to not read other's comments before I post mine so I don't get swayed, so I apologize if someone else has already mentioned these things.

    That first paragraph is fun. I like that detail. Do be careful about the wording. For example, did Kazi really create people with her mind? Because it doesn't state that of the other two. I think it could make an intriguing short prologue to this. I also think it could be saved for a little later into the first chapter, maybe when she's looking through the books on the king or something.

    I noticed a lot of backstory taking a bit of a front seat. While your world is rich and full and well thought out, I would say that engaging readers with an opening hook-type scene--rather than using the world's history to try and pull them in--is going to be a better bet. Let the engaging history come out as the story progresses in little details that mesh fluidly with the scene. That will make your scenes rich and vibrant and still allow you to focus on plot and character instead of backstory.

    I think when she asks "Is it true our king has no heart?" is actually a very engaging opening line. I love it. I'm interested. I want to know how a king could physically have his heart stolen, and I think this would make a great opening line into an opening scene.

    I would encourage you to be careful, because that scene also seems to get bogged down with a few false starts (when her uncle is telling the story) that don't actually build tension.

    Is there a way to start the book in the present with this scene? That is my suggestion. I think it could really work to propel the story forward. I think her desire to find the king's missing heart is a great character motivator. I'd love to see that play out from her learning the truth right here, right now. Think about it and see if you like the idea.

    As for the backstory preceding all of this scene, condense it to the bits that are absolutely needed and sprinkle those bits where they will pack the most punch--this may even be in later chapters. Only give readers what they need to know when they need to know it. Everything else is excess. (advice I got in a writing class once.) :) I really think that paragraph between the opener and before the "Is it true" line could be cut without changing the story's integrity at this time. See what you think. :)

    I'm looking forward to reading the revision.

    1. Hi, thanks for your insights. I'm definitely working on creating a hook to start off the scene. I know my writing here tends to be heavy on the backstory, good tip about excess. That's the goal right now—engage the reader with enough so they can make sense of things, but without bogging them down.

  6. Fantasy has always been my first love and I was easily swept up in the world you’ve created. The world-building is very good. I do believe your story starts with your character’s reflection of her father’s heart being stolen. (Does she have a name? All I caught was Little Mouse.) Agents and editors want the story to start right away, usually without prologues and backstory. Your information at the very beginning is important, of course, and I am sure it can be doled out as the story goes on, a little at a time.

    I do think you have a good voice and an interesting story concept. Right now it sounds a bit like a fairy tale (the king’s stolen heart) but I hope there is something much darker and dangerous afoot. I shall have to wait and see, won’t I?

    Thanks for submitting your pages, Alyssa

    1. Hi Ronald, thanks for your comments. It's good to know the fairy tale vibe came through, as the story is actually based on one. Something I changed in my revision was to add in my main character's name, because that seemed to be a universal comment here. I am still working on balancing the world-building with movement right from the beginning of the story, and I think what you suggested about doling it out little by little is just the way to do that.