Sunday, July 2, 2017

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Yeung

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

Polino’s specialty was bringing his headless dove back to life.

Every afternoon in Union Square, during his magic finale, Polino reveled in the gasps and uncertain smiles of his audience. Some huddled to shield each other from the chill of the fog, or perhaps they needed the comfort after witnessing a teenage boy slice off his innocent bird’s head. Polino’s grin meant to assure them that everything was 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 as they passed, noticing again that the only one who didn’t clap or tip was the pretty woman in the periwinkle coat.

Every day for the past week, she had watched Polino’s act from beginning to end, wearing 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.

As the crowd trickled away, Paula’s smile faded as the woman approached her. She often caught the gaze of men in the crowd, with her heart-shaped alabaster face, rose-kissed cheeks, and striking blue eyes that matched her coat. Unlike many modern ladies, who wore their hair boyishly short and stuffed into berets or cloches, this woman’s sleek, long black hair flowed freely down her back. The last few times they spoke, Paula had noticed something uncanny about the way her head moved, as if the movement of her shoulders had a mind of their own.

The woman proved herself to be a pest, and Paula knew what she’d say before she parted her luscious lips.

“Master Mortison is holding auditions right now. You can still make it on time.” Her voice was melodic and syrupy sweet, and it would have worked magic on the men who stared at her, but Paula did not share their desires.

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

She would have liked to say, “Beat it!” but Paula didn’t want to shoot her career in the foot. Talent agents might be scouting anywhere.

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 newsboy cap over her dark hair and said, “Best of luck on your own auditions, Miss.” She clasped her trunk shut. Its wheels crunched against damp gravel as she left her post at the Dewey Monument.

“It is wasted potential, girlie.”

Paula turned around and forced a smile. She dropped her masculine voice; Polino had stepped away from his stage, and Paula needn’t prolong the act. “I appreciate your advice. I do. But I will not settle for a lesser position simply so I can 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.

For the past few days, the woman had notified Paula of Master Mortison’s open casting call for a new lovely assistant. 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. The mere Polino would only become “The Great Polino” after performing in such an upstanding, inside venue. But Paula refused to audition as a nameless assistant. She had more pride than to stand on stage as living furniture.

Paula’s pockets jingled as she rolled her trunk down Geary. 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.

As Paula neared her apartment on the corner of Geary and Leavenworth, her shoulders sagged. 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, and Paula 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 already paid you off last Tuesday,” Paula said.

“Well, good afternoon to you too.”

Paula rolled her trunk into the tiny, creaky elevator, recalling the prior Tuesday. She had dressed as a girl that day. It was, after all, the first time women all over the country could vote, but Paula was three years away 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, wash, and eat, and Merlin didn’t complain about the tight quarters or the lingering odor of laundry that had never dried properly. After locking her front door, 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.

She started undressing before she even reached her bedroom, longing for the release of an unbound chest. The long strip of tight cloth unraveled from her flattened breasts, and Paula slouched forth with a sigh as the last inch curled into a roll.

In the shower, as hot water sprayed her face, Paula considered her closing act. Reattaching Merlin’s head was becoming her signature illusion, but Polino wasn’t a one-trick pony.

All Paula’s best acts included Merlin the dove as her assistant. Whenever he was visible, Paula ensured he had something to do, like pull a handkerchief from her pocket or choose an audience member from the crowd. He had no reason to complain he was a mere prop. He also couldn’t talk.

As she was drying off, Paula jumped at a crash, but thought little of it. Her next door neighbors were notoriously clumsy and had even knocked over a full bookcase once. Six months after repairing the floor, Mister O’Brien still hadn’t let them hear the end of it.

When Paula emerged from the steamy bathroom, she discovered it wasn’t the next door neighbors, after all, but an intruder. At Paula’s gasp, Merlin flew to her head.

Beneath dusty incandescent light, the woman in the periwinkle coat stood before the kitchen table. The splintered doorknob lay on the floor, and she had made a poor attempt at shutting the door. Although she whimpered, her porcelain face stared at Paula, with that eerie, pleasant smile.


  1. Hi, Adelle! I really enjoyed the set up of this story. The location and actions were very clear.

    The opening line was great, I got the "what the?!?" reaction I'm sure you were going for. The shock of finding out Polino was really Paula was well done. However, I was a bit thrown by the reference of "his" audience, bird, etc rather than the audience or an innocent bird. This made it feel like Paula thought of herself as a boy, not a girl in disguise as a boy. Could just be my personal take! Also, considering Paula says she doesn't like other females, I was a little taken aback by her thinking of the woman's lips as "luscious."

    I look forward to seeing how this progresses with the edits! Please let me know if you have any questions about my comments. Good luck.

    1. Hi Stacy! Thank you for your feedback. Referring to Paula as a "he/him/his" before Polino's real gender is revealed was mostly the narrator stringing the reader along.

      Also, as someone who's not attracted to women, I'd like to think that heterosexual women are capable of appreciating other women's beauty as well ;) I'd totally tell a lady friend that I think her lips are luscious. But there is a difference between telling that to a friend and a stranger.

    2. I totally understand that! If I left the impression that it bothered me on a personal level, I'm sorry. Absolutely not the case. I have zero problem with one woman appreciating the looks of another regardless of which way their sexuality blows. My comment was based off of feedback I received myself when I introduce a female into my story later on. I had beta and a CP both mentioning they felt like Mel was a bit over the top in her internal description of the character.

    3. Oh, no, your opinion is totally valid, and thank you for bringing it up :D I do see that if someone questions you about it, then you'd wonder about it in someone else's writing too. I'd think it'd be really cool for everyone to compliment each other without questioning one's sexuality. So I put that in my writing. 'Cause if someone is super hot, then by gosh, describe them as super hot!

  2. Love your opening line!

    You set up the tone right away with Polino chopping off the bird’s head. There’s a little bit of telling in the first paragraph, not with respect to sentence structure, but because we aren’t yet in the moment. We are listening to something that happens every afternoon. Perhaps starting with him (her) holding up the headless bird and having the audience react would better anchor us. The very next paragraph does the job, just need to transition to it.

    You also set up the location (NY) quickly, as well as the era with mention of fedoras and bowlers. Nicely done, there.

    I like the reveal that Polino is a girl, though it took me a second to realize Polina = Paula.

    Perhaps a little too much description of the woman in periwinkle, in the beginning, though it may just be me. Maybe just focus on one particular aspect of her and make that really stand out (e.g. just her black hair, just her blue eyes, just her lips, just her voice). I say this because at the end of the five pages I remember reading about a generally beautiful woman, instead of, say, the woman with strange eyes. Just an idea.

    I was a little confused by Paula’s thoughts regarding her career. She wants to be open to career opportunities, but not from the strange woman?

    There are two paragraphs that give some backstory that I don’t think we need just yet. The first is talking about voting, and the very next one is talking about her foster mother. Then we segue into her undressing and taking a bath. It’s written well and I like how you show her disguise, but typical day-to-day activities aren’t nearly as interesting as Polino’s performance, IMO.

    I do love how the scene ends, with the strange woman in her room. Only, why does she whimper? I’m sure we’ll find out in the next few pages, but I imagined she’d we wearing an expression of victory for having followed and broken into Paula’s home.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Danielle! I'll see what I can do to SHOW Polino performing the decapitation act.

      The voting tidbit was used to further set the time period, but I could back on Mama Sully. The voting age in 1920 was actually twenty-one, so while Paula is an adult by today's standards, back then she was still considered a kid, which I felt needed some explanation as to why she was living on her own?

      Although Paula would love someone to give her a big break, she wants to be a MAGICIAN, not a magician's assistant. I guess it'd kind of be like if someone came up to me saying, "Hey, there's this great gig as a columnist at this big magazine company," and I'd probably turn it down saying, "But I'm a novelist." Even if it pays well, you know your heart isn't there.

    2. I had a feeling that you used the voting bit to better anchor the time and place. But you are also using it to provide her age?

      I understand what you mean by magicians' assistant vs. magician now. Thanks for explaining.

  3. Hi Adelle,

    The opening line was a nice hook to bring the reader in; well done. I also liked the way that “Polino” was revealed to be Paula. The set-up of the magician who’s holding auditions and the mystery woman who’s pestering Paula is great for making the reader want to continue on and gives the story a clear direction.

    I had a few questions after reading. Two were about the mystery woman; how was she the only one who knew Paula was a girl? Had Paula revealed this to her while packing up after a show? I also wondered about her relationship to Master Mortison—is she an agent of his sent to recruit a new assistant? Or is she working for herself, or for someone else? I’m assuming this is revealed later but I would’ve liked some indication of her intentions.

    Something else I was wondering about was Paula’s motivation and her goals. It seems like her dream is to become a great solo magician, so she doesn’t want to take a job as an assistant. However, it seemed odd to me that she would be so quick to discount an opportunity where she could be mentored and possibly gain a footing in the world of professional magic. If Master Mortison was known for treating assistants badly or something similar, it would have made more sense. And I wondered too when she thinks about becoming “The Great Polino” if she intended to have a professional career as a man or if her goal was to perform full-time as a female.

    The other question I had was about the world of the story in general. This could very well be because I began reading knowing this was categorized as urban fantasy, but I was left wondering about the “fantasy” aspects of this world. Unless I read it incorrectly, Paula’s tricks are all just regular magic tricks, with no supernatural ability required. I’m not sure what role magic or fantasy play in this world—are there wizards/witches, magical creatures, or something else?—and I would have liked to see some indication of whether or not magic is normal in this world. Even if not, a bit of narration making it clear that Paula’s tricks are all completely ordinary would work. This may just be my personal preference for stories that include a fantasy element, and you may not feel this specification is right for your story. Just something to consider.

    I hope I was able to offer some things for you to think about for your revision. I felt like I was nitpicking a bit, which means that this is a very strong start already!


    1. Hi Alyssa, thanks for your feedback! You've made some great points here. The "fantasy" aspect of it is revealed pretty much on page six, right after this segment. It's definitely there, but I wanted to start out with Paula's "ordinary" world before starting into anything strange.

      Thanks again!

    2. Same with me...I've got some critical stuff revealed on page 6, then more on page 8. But it's those first 5 that really need to be clear, right?

    3. I'm in this same boat! Most of the questions that have been asked of me are answered in the first chapter. Eek!

    4. Stacy, I'd like to think that because we are curious about these things that it's a good sign? :'D Because we want to know more as a reader? I don't think we necessarily have to answer all the questions at once. I'd like to think that, for the first five pages, as long as we establish the main character, the conflict, setting, and tone, we're good? Yeah? Yeeeaaah...????

    5. I agree, Adelle! :) I remember reading some advice, that you want your reader to ask questions that make them curious not confused. I think that is what we are doing (refining). Since we know questions are coming up that are answered in a timely manner, I think we are good as long as we are establishing the points you mentioned.

      I hope!?!

    6. Haha, yes, I think so :D On the other hand, there are those questions that make you wonder, "Why didn't I think of that?!" And then you go off to address it. So these curiosity questions are helpful too :)

    7. Oh, absolutely! I've had a couple of those. The feedback from everyone here has been a tremendous help. :)

    8. I also see this as a supreme opportunity to truly tighten and refine. Attention to detail! The key is to make these opening pages shine to entice an agent/editor to read more with the confidence that the rest of the MS reflects the same level of quality.

      That magic bit in my opening scene wasn't there, originally - two agents suggested me to add it, so here it is :-) Now I'm not sure that it's working.

  4. Dear Adelle,

    There's a lot I like about this, particularly as I’m a total sucker for stories set in the era. I think you build the sense of the world well, in terms of describing Union Square and the Cort Theater. In terms of characters, you have a nice way with short phrases that say a lot. For example, I really liked: "Paula had noticed something uncanny about the way her head moved, as if the movement of her shoulders had a mind of her own." Also, I liked how Paula "spread seed for him over the kitchen’s folding table." With so few words you provide a striking picture.

    What jumped out to me the most as I read the pages was how much you explained about things that had happened in the past. I do think you’re front-loading a bit here. What can go? Maybe Paula filing for emancipation?

    I also wondered how much differently this would read if the woman actually approached Polino/Paula for the first time. If they had to talk about the arrangement, with the woman trying to convince and Paula feeling excited or doubtful, suspicious or affronted or whatever, we really might be able to see why she rejects this offer. Because like your other readers thus far, I didn’t really understand why Paula wouldn’t take the offer to improve her lot, particularly if she needs money. Perhaps some of my confusion is due to the structure of the paragraph about the Cort Theater. You write that s/he would become "The Great Polino," and then you go on to say that Paula refuses to audition as a nameless assistant. Because the sentences come one after the other, I at first thought that the audition would make her "The Great Polino." I had to read it a couple of times to venture a guess that the assistant audition actually WOULDN’T make Paula "The Great Polino." Instead, does she have schemes to find a way to perform there on her own terms? If the two spoke for the first time, we also might learn why this one woman knows Polino is actually Paula. Paula doesn’t trust this woman, nor does she seem to like the woman. Why would she reveal an important secret to her?

    If you don’t make this the initial encounter with the woman, I wouldn’t recommend explaining all the answers to the questions above. (Why does the woman know Polino is Paula? Why does Paula reject this offer — what scheme does she have or is she working on that she thinks might help her become "The Great Polino"?) I’d like to see more come out in the scene itself, during this encounter with the woman pestering her.

    I did wonder about the POV a touch. You move into a close third, but the initial few paragraphs are a bit more distant, showing this piece of the story as if from outside of Polino. For example, if Polino were telling more from his/her perspective, s/he would mention the presence of the woman harassing him/her earlier. And s/he’d be less concerned that the woman didn’t clap or tip, and more concerned about how to avoid her, or how to get rid of her, or how to keep her from revealing his/her secret. Maybe the opening should be a bit less panoramic, so you can use the opportunity to begin with immediate tension?

    In terms of some of the research, I did wonder about a few historical details. The hot shower, for example. Would that be part of a cheap apartment? Would she have her own bathroom? Also, if the apartment were cheap and tiny, would there be a separate bedroom? (Would she even be able to afford a bedroom without sharing?) And elevators? Would those be common in cheap buildings? I wondered, too, about talent agents. I don’t know much about the history of them. Did they wander the streets looking for new talent in this era?

    Intriguing possibilities here.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Laura!

      I didn't want to spend too much time showing how Paula came to dislike the woman in the periwinkle coat, and I felt that because it's the actual day of auditions, there would be more urgency on her part, hence later breaking into Paula's apartment.

      I'm still hesitant on cutting back the emancipation detail, 'cause again I wanted to explain why Paula's living on her own as an underaged girl back in that time, BUT you brought up a great point about the showers. I'm not even sure, so I think I'll cut that.

      Anyway, thanks again! I think I have a better idea of how to approach ironing out some of the details.

  5. Your first line is amazing. You know that from all the comments already up there.

    While you do a great job with the bowlers and such, not everyone will know this is NYC. And that's okay. I'd add a little more about setting if you can manage it without being overdone. Cars vs. carriages or whatever.

    The second paragraph is a generalized "this is what happens every day" contrasted against the specific day in the third paragraph. I think it would flow better if you just began with what is happening today, perhaps noting with a few words that the audience's reaction was the same today as it had been every day for a month or whatever. Avoid confusion by keeping us in the same moment. You do this again with a paragraph a little later. That forward momentum is necessary.

    As a fantasy, I'm wondering the whole time if Paula really does cut off the bird's head every day. Is this true magic disguised as a show? I think we should know.

    For some reason, the shower threw me. Did they have showers back then?

    There's no sense of danger from the woman following her. Even when she's broken in, I don't get that panic I should feel. Because there's history and I don't know the history, I have no idea how to react when she breaks in.

    Overall, you're already an amazing writer and I can't wait to see what you do with this!

    1. Thank you very much! Very clear feedback, and I think I know how to approach this first revision :)

  6. Hello Adelle!

    I really enjoyed this excerpt. It's intriguing and I'm curious about Paula's journey and if she will become Mortison's assistant. You have some good suggestions above so I'll just add a few of mine.

    There are many great details here, but for me it's lacking emotion and a deeper point of view. There are four elements for getting into a deeper point of view--action, reaction, thought, emotion.

    In the beginning, I think you need to get into Paula's head. The opening feels distant. You may want to layer in Paula's thoughts and emotions during this scene. Adding more of the senses--what Paula sees, smells, hears, etc.--would bring the setting more alive. There are places where you tell us something when showing us would be so much better.

    How does Paula feel when she spots the woman in the periwinkle coat. Don't tell us, show us. What is her internal thought at the woman's presence. Find places where you can add Paula's emotions and thoughts to deepen the reader's connection to her.

    You miss a great place to add deeper point of view and excitement for the reader with this paragraph, "When Paula emerged from the steamy bathroom, she discovered it wasn’t the next door neighbors, after all, but an intruder. At Paula’s gasp, Merlin flew to her head."

    There's not emergency in that paragraph.

    I think it would be better to show Paula startled when she finds the woman in her room. Something like this but not as bad as my example -- something in your wonderful voice...

    ***Paula emerged from the steamy bathroom and practically tripped over the carpet's edge. A shadowed figure stood in the entry. She gasped, causing Merlin to fly to her head. ((action))

    "W-who's there," she blurted.((reaction)) (italics)I'm going to die. No. Think, Paula. Grab something. A weapon.(italics)((thought)) She grabbed her umbrella leaning against the wall and strangled the handle. Her heart hammered in her chest and tears burned her eyes.((emotion))

    Beneath dusty incandescent light... ***

    Sprinkling in deeper POV, emotions, and senses will bring this scene to life. You want to excite your reader to read on. You have great little details that does give us a sense of place and time, but instead of telling us what's happening, show us by the action, reaction, thought, and emotions of your characters.

    Remember you are the creator of this story, so only take the advice that you agree with and feel will benefit your work. I must say that this is a great opening and an intriguing story. I can't wait to see the revisions in the next round. Good luck.

    1. Thanks Brenda! I'll definitely try to sprinkle in some more emotion.