Sunday, July 16, 2017

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.


  1. Adelle, I think your pitch is great. It is so close to what I've read on twitter which tells me you really captured the core of what your story is about. Great job!

    I wish I had more to say for the pages themselves, but you've done a wonderful job of applying critiques and suggestions. The sections such as how the woman knows Polino is really Paula and why she tells the woman good luck is crystal clear. I love the bit of tension you added with her checking over her shoulder to make sure the woman isn't following her.

    My only comment would be on the opening. This is SO subjective and I get the feeling you've had a ton of conflicting opinions on this. For me, it seems distant. I get the feeling of being in the crowd watching the show and not seeing things from Polino's perspective until the end of the 3rd paragraph. Again, this is totally subjective.

    All in all I really enjoy the story and am happy I was able to participate in reading it through the workshop. Thank you for sharing!

    If you have a question regarding my comments please let me know. Good luck with your story.

    1. Thanks Stacy! I did the "distant, in the audience" thing with the narrative in the opening on purpose, and I personally like the way it is, as we don't get into Paula's head until it's revealed that Polino is a girl. BUT I definitely see how it can bug other people. It just might take a little more convincing and an alternative to change it :'D

      Thanks so much for your feedback!

  2. You have some great voice tucked into the pitch. It's pretty solid as-is! One confusing line: A cursed collar trades Paula’s obedience with her life.
    I don't understand what it means. A cursed collar forces Paula to obey or lose her own head? Keep it straightforward for us.

    The whole last paragraph seems redundant.


    You've done some really nice tightening!
    Be careful of telling. You can do a bit, because we have to just know some stuff. I think you're finding that tricky balance pretty well though.

    I'd cut the sentence: Polino had left his stage, so Paula needn’t prolong the act.

    I know we want to promote female independence, but be careful not to overdo it.

    Rather than telling us, why don't you have her see a little girl that reminded her of one of her foster sisters or her mother. Or bring us into this as internalization, her missing her family, as you tell us about them.

    Maybe we could see this in the first act rather than having you tell us about it here: 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.

    Word echo: backward

    This is such a great opening! I love the tone and the setting. You've done a great job. Good luck with your publishing journey!

    1. Thanks so much for all your help, Heather!

  3. Adelle,

    I really like how this has come along. It reads well, and I have very few questions. Nice work!

    Let me begin with your pitch.

    You use language so that you convey some of the voice of the manuscript, which is great. The sentences are strong. I did wonder about the storyline. While you provide a double bind in a sense, with Paula needing to do something she doesn’t want to in order to save herself, the double bind is kind of a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t do this thing to save herself? This made me wonder about the overall tension of the story, because the price Paula’s paying to complete the task is work in a theater, which she wants to do even though it isn’t exactly what she planned. Also, the story, in a way, seems to be about helping the woman out, which means more is at stake for the woman Paula is helping rather than Paula herself. Her OWN story - her quest to succeed on her own terms - seems a bit ancillary. I guess I wonder if these are bound more tightly together so that each choice she makes means she has a great deal at stake. Not only because she’s trying to save herself, but because she has a dearly-held wish she’s trying to fulfill.

    As far as your pages go, I think you’ve cleared up a lot of my concerns. I only have a few.

    “Polino” as the same tomboyish magician - We use tomboyish to describe girls, but I did wonder if you need to say girl magician or woman magician or something. Just make it really clear.

    I wonder about the use of the term gender here. We separate “gender” from “sex” in this era, so your use of the terms make sense for our century. Does it make sense for the early twentieth century? I remember the term “sex” used frequently in my historical studies of that time period, rather than “gender.” Maybe I’m misremembering?

    Paula describes what’s odd about the woman, the glowing eyes, etc. Is this a world in which magic and fantastical things exist? Would Paula fear possession or something? Or does she think the woman is ‘off’ in another way? Mad (as in mental instability)? A con artist? A concrete, articulated fear might cue readers a bit as to what is normal for a character to expect in this story and what isn’t.

    In the next paragraph, you have a line that reverses chronology. “She clenched her teeth to suppress a groan as the woman sauntered over.” I’d have the woman start to saunter first, so we don’t get to the end of the sentence before we learn why Paula’s upset.

    After the paragraph - “Before turning the corner to her apartment…” and before “Miss Mendez!” you have the opportunity to bring us into the space. A brief description of her stepping into the building will allow us a glimpse of the entranceway and the landlord, the kind of place Paula can afford.

    The leap from Tuesday and paying the rent to Tuesday when women could vote is a little abrupt for me. A sentence or phrase could provide a smoother transition. “Paula gave him the coins as she went out to watch women line up to vote for the first time... “ (Something like this.)

    Also, the transition to her thoughts about her eighteenth birthday are abrupt. You might smooth this, too. Otherwise, it kind of reads as though she turned eighteen on that day as well, and filed for emancipation. Is this what you mean? Or is the point that she isn’t 21 but she was able to file for emancipation anyway? Is there a way you could connect these two thoughts? For example, “Twenty-one was so far off, and she needed to be independent now. Not long ago, on her eighteenth birthday…” (And could women file for emancipation at 18 then? Would she even need to at that time?)

    That’s all I have for this. Good luck with the project!


    1. Thanks so much for all your feedback, Laura! It's really helped.

  4. Hi Adelle,

    Great work on your revisions! Your pages are in good shape.

    As far as your pitch, I think you’ve got the conflict and stakes spelled out pretty clearly. I noticed you added a bit of a historical flair with the language, which I’m not sure I loved but that’s just my opinion. I didn’t quite get the same voice from your pages, so I’d be careful about making sure those match (for instance the use of the word ‘dame’ twice in your query, but ‘woman' in your pages).

    I really like the idea of the witch’s head imploring Paula to find the rest of her. One thing in the pitch confused me though—does the witch force the cursed collar onto Paula? You say the witch “orders Paula to infiltrate the theater” so I assumed she forced the collar on her, otherwise I wasn’t sure why Paula would agree to help. The next line about trading obedience with her life also confused me for a quick second, maybe because of the use of ‘her’ and the fact both characters are female. Is there a clearer way to present the idea?

    The ending of the pitch seemed a little blunt as well. We know her life is at stake from the previous paragraph, so even just saying “If Paula fails to reclaim the witch’s body her life will be forfeit” or “her life will fall into the witch’s hands forever” would be clear enough.

    Overall, nice job on the pitch and pages!


    1. Hi Alyssa! Yeah, the cursed collar is forced onto Paula. Thanks so much for all your feedback and best of luck on your own novel!

  5. Your Query:

    So very nitpicky because I’m a grammar fiend…”dreaming of starring” – those two –ing verbs right after the other sound awkward. Maybe a small edit, like: In 1920, eighteen-year-old Paula Mendez performs magic tricks on the streets of San Francisco and dreams of starring on her own ritzy stage.

    The “but seeing promise in her talents” phrase needs to come after the noun – the dame – so that we know who is doing the seeing. Maybe: Most bystanders tip her with a coin or two, until one dame urges Paula to audition…

    I love the voice in the first paragraph!

    I’d like to know who magically banished the witch’s head and from where? Did the magician banish her from his performance? When you state that the witch wants Paula to infiltrate the theater in her stead, it sounds like the witch was sneaking around, got caught, and was banished. Lastly, whose story is this? The witch or Paula's? As I read this, I'm hoping more of Paula's story is revealed in the query wrap-up.

    I’m not entirely sure and I’m obviously making some assumptions. Perhaps we need a little more context? I’m making this up to give an example: “Her still-warm body lies somewhere in the magician’s theater, after he banished her from spying on his ghoulish troupe. Seeing promise in her talents, the witch orders Paula to…”

    I also used “seeing promise in her talents” in this paragraph instead of the first.

    I love the stakes at play here with the collar. I would find another word for “trades” to up the stakes even more. Maybe…guarantees, assures…A cursed collar forces Paula’s obedience…something stronger than “trades” because “trades” makes it sound like a deal, but we just read that the witch orders Paula.

    I LOVE “to save her own neck!!” It insinuates Paula will also become a floating head like the witch.

    I feel like we need a stronger ending. Given your opening pages, it sounds like the first two paragraphs of the query are all included in the first chapter. I think what’s missing is more of Paula's story and less of the witch. To achieve that, tell us what stands in her way of succeeding. Yes, she must succeed without being caught…but what is preventing her from doing this? I think you can add this in with the “She must avoid suspicion” line. Does she fall for someone? Does she have to fight to trust someone? Does she doubt someone? Does the witch become her best friend? Does she find out the witch is her long lost mother? I think one more layer of challenge is needed.

    Now the pages...

  6. Your Pages:

    First line – LOVE. And I really enjoy the edits you made. I feel like I am there in the opening scene with you. The era is well established early on, too. Also, those opening lines are in active voice with little telling, which makes my grammar nerdism so very satisfied.

    Very nitpicky – sighed in relief and delight, sagged in relief (not with). Also, double check your use of the word “had.” The past perfect had should be used with the verb that happens furthest in the past. In some places it’s incorrect, in others you need to add it. Try to get rid of filtering phrases as much as possible for a stronger narrative. There is only one or two that I see, now.

    This confused me: “Paula hadn’t thought anyone would recognize the charming “Polino” as the same tomboyish magician who frequented Union Square.” I was confused because charming Polino actual IS the tomboyish magician, so when Paula doesn’t think anyone would recognize her I was expecting a stronger differentiating comparison. It’s the “tomboyish” adjective that threw me. Maybe: Paula didn’t think anyone would recognize the charming “Polino” as the same scrawny girl who frequented Union Square with her magic tricks.

    I see you played up the voice more this round, using more slang appropriate with the period. Totally love it! And the voice carries throughout your pages, too.

    I know we’ve discussed this before, but that paragraph about the women’s vote still sounds like it’s placed in a weird location. She made some money as Polino in the freezing cold, the odd woman was still harassing her, the landlord wants to be paid, she’s got to lug her stuff up a flight of stairs…and she starts thinking about women’s right to vote. It doesn’t feel like the next natural think for Paula to think about at that moment. I know you want to establish her age so there must be a way to include this more organically…maybe a brief mention up top when she’s thinking about how she made money as Polino instead of Paula…boys still have an advantage, even though women finally earned the right to vote.

    Something like that?

    Hope I am helping!

    1. Hi Danielle, thanks for your feedback! I never realized that thing with "in" instead of "with" before, heh. Best of luck on your own novel! :)

    2. I never used "in" either, until one of my CPs pointed it out.
      Now when I read anything using "with" instead of "in" it stands out.

      Actually, whenever I read now I'm sensitive to a bunch of things, like: as if, seemed to, appeared to, felt, saw, heard, realized. One book I read recently was filled with these filtering phrases and it drove me crazy!

  7. Hi, Adelle! It's lovely to be reviewing your work; thank you so much for participating in the contest! Since Blogger has been kicking out my comments for being too long (whoops), see them here in two parts!

    the nitpicky:
    "The House with Two Faces" -- such a killer title. Loved this.
    "breathing end table" -- this is a great image, but in a pitch, you might consider trading for clarity. Is she too proud to be a sidekick? Anything other than the main act? Etc.
    "floating witch's head" -- I have no idea how this works. How does she move around? Or keep up the illusion that she's a whole human! I had the same question in the pages below.
    "A cursed collar trades Paula's obedience with her life" -- I can't tell who puts the collar on. I assume it isn't Paula, but if it's the witch, does she magic the collar onto her? I would clarify further.

    NOTES: The summary was tight, but I agree with the notes above that we need to know more about Paula's story. In this draft, the focus in the last paragraph is just Paula's reaction to the witch's curse. We don't have an identified antagonist set up against Paula, though I expect that it might be the magician? If so, I would clarify. The end of your pitch also raises the question if Paula potentially gains anything from being employed in the theatre with the other magician? And further, if her head is severed, does she die or is she left in the same state as the witch-- just a floating head? I was a bit lost on a lot of the nuance here. One exercise that might be useful is reading your pitch to someone who hasn't read your novel yet to see what questions they might have. Listening (and often the act of just reading it aloud) often cues different points than if someone had read the same thing. [1/2]

  8. [2/2]
    OVERALL: The first three paragraphs (though I could tell that it was detached from the character in order to reflect her crossdressing!) though very interesting, weren’t as dynamic as I think you can manage based on the following pages. You have a street magician! That's so exciting! I wondered if you could make it a little flashier and *magical* and describe more of the action happening here. If Polino is pausing for dramatic effect, write that into the story! Drag that moment with him. Maybe it would be useful to see the verbal lead into the act and the hype before Polino quickly reveals that Merlin is okay. Throughout, the time period colored your narrative voice and that resonated very well. However, for being an urban fantasy, I could have used more details about SF in the 20's. Is there a lot of construction? Is she skirting around Model T's? Otherwise, categorize this as YA historical fantasy. The moment where Paula says "I won’t settle for a lesser position just to perform in a ritzy theater" feels like such a big character building moment, but I'm not sure you created a big enough moment for it. I would have loved to see more of her thoughts and emotions here. You built in a lot of moments for depth and then I was left wanting more. The next was when she revealed that the suffrage movement had just earned the right to vote and then, immediately after, that Paula is an emancipated orphan (though is 18 the age of majority in the 20's?). These are massive revelations about her character, especially so early in the novel when we've already learned she's crossdressing to further her career/earn more money. I expected to love such a strong, unique female protagonist, but she simply read as a little flat. I didn't get into her head as much as I truly wanted. I would focus on further developing Paula's internal momentum (since your narrative voice is already strong and well done) and showing your audience more of her emotional headspace. This will go a long way to creating a more engaging and immediately gripping character that your audience is happily willing to follow through the end of the novel. Since so much of the concept is predicated by Paula's responses to external elements, she should be the strongest element in your story. Great start and fun concept!

    1. Thanks so much for your reply! I think I've been struggling with imbuing more emotion to this while also trying to show everything else that you're supposed to in the first chapter. I'll definitely take that into consideration!