Saturday, September 2, 2017

1st 5 Pages September Workshop- Politano

Name: Nora Politano
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Witch's Way

Torches light the growing darkness, dancing to the beat of furious drums. The air is alive with it, with color and music and shadows that weave to match me every move. Faces blur into one, into nothing, and nothing matters but the music. I am the flute, high and clear as a brook running over sand. I am the fiddle, leaping across the strings faster than the eye can follow. I am the drums, pounding against the stones with a force that makes the earth shake.

And then the music stops.

I sway slightly on me feet, breathing heavily, as the crowd erupts into cheers. Me feet and hands burn from trying to keep time with the song, and the world is still spinning despite the fact that I’m no longer moving with it.

Dizzy and breathless, I curtsy as politely as I can to the crowd and collapse on the flagstones next to the musicians in an untidy heap of red skirts.

“Well done,” I rasp, scooping a cupful of water out of our bucket.

“Ye as well.” Fergus hands me a rag to mop me face with, blue eyes twinkling. “I could ha' sworn ye were seconds away from taking flight.”

“I could've sworn she was trying to open up the earth to swallow us,” Kagen says cheekily, storing away his flute. I smack him upside his sandy head.

“Good earnings,” Aiden observes, rattling the coins in the tin cup. They slide against each other with clinks and shinksthe sounds of a generous audience. “What say we take the rest of the night off, do a little celebrating?”

“Aye, that sounds like an excellent plan,” Fergus grins.

“You'd better get your share quick, Gwyn,” Kagen tells me, jostling Aiden with an elbow to the ribs and grabbing a handful of coins himself. “Before these louts cheat you blind.”

I roll me eyes. He’s lucky Aiden’s a good sport, because the much-stockier man could break Kagen’s skinny arm in one blow.

“Mind your tone, laddie,” Fergus says indignantly. “I was an old man before ye were born.”

“Yea, a drunk old man, and you haven't changed since.” Kagen dodges as Fergus swings at him, then disappears into the crowd, laughing.

Aiden holds the cup out to me, but I shake me head.

“I have me own ways of earning money,” I say with a wink.

“Yer not up t’ trouble again, are ye Gwyn?” Fergus asks, frowning.

I kiss his wrinkled cheek. “None more so than usual.” And with that, I follow Kagen into the crowd, shouting, “Don't drink all your money at once!”

I don't hear his reply, being entirely swallowed up in the masses of people. The Lunster Spring Festival brings visitors from all over Gaelfre, come to see the gypsies perform. The rich and poor spill over the lines that separate our ways of life, united by the common desire for entertainment. At any second, I might be brushing elbows with a fisherman's wife or a priest from the castle temple. It's a pickpocket’s paradise.

Me hands are quick and feather-light, barely touching on one person before moving to the next. I slip a heavy pouch of coins and several thick golden rings off a nobleman and into me cloak. A girl runs past in a hairnet studded with seed-pearls, and I'm gone with the thing in hand even as her hair tumbles over her shoulders. A woman whose veil marks her as a member of the king’s harem makes the mistake of flashing her golden bangles, and I purposefully stumble into her, sliding them off her arms under the pretense of steadying her. Another pouch of coins from a baker and a jeweled necklace from his wife are tucked into me skirts as I duck behind them to avoid the harem girl's angry shouts of, “Thief! Give my jewelry back, diabhal!”

Fat chance of that.

Humming contentedly, I follow the flow of people about me as they drift from sight to sight, with the gypsies like rocks in the river. I see the fire-breathers, Niall and Devlin, up to their usual tricks, and tiny dark-skinned Rafi walking the tightrope far above our heads. Ronan draws mostly men to his little slab of wood on the ground, all determined to be the only one who can follow the golden coin that he flashes from cup to cup, and occasionally, from sleeve to sleeve. Fair-haired Elin sits outside her tent, decked in gold-trimmed robes and with her eyes lined in kohl, claiming to be able to speak to the gods and the dead. I raise a hand in greeting to all of them, but I'm too busy to stop and talk.

The tantalizing smell of spices and sweet cakes pulls me towards the vendors, where merchants are selling every imaginable ware from ribbons to brass pots to magic cures. I slide a handful of roasted nuts up me sleeve at one cart and nab a silver brooch from another. A shell from the Aralesian Sea catches me eye, and I pick that up too, just for the fun of it.

I’m pretending to admire a dull green cloth whilst eyeing the nearby jewelry display when someone says, “You’re not welcome here.”

Looking up, I see the speaker is the woman behind the table of fabrics, a middle-aged matron with slightly pronounced wrinkles and fading brown hair. Her expression is noticeably hostile.

I narrow me eyes. “I’m sure you can’t be talking to me. I’ve done nothing to offend.”

“I don’t sell to your lot.” Her gaze goes from me face to me hair, resting long enough to make it unmistakable what ‘lot’ she means. Glory, someone woke up on the wrong side of the pasture.

Planting me hands on me hips, I say, “Don’t tell me you’ve got standards, you old cow. I saw you selling to the whorehouse owner, and he doesn’t even have hair.”

“Get on, witch,” she spits. “Before I call the guards.”

“Oh boo.” I thumb me nose at her in case she has any doubts about which lot she’s in, and then flounce away. The woman calls a foul name after me, which I promptly return over me shoulder. As if I hadn’t heard it all before.

“Well aren’t you sweet,” Aidan says in me ear.

I jump, and then smack him. “Ye gods, don’t sneak up on me like that! I thought you were drinking with Fergus.”

“I got interrupted.” He grabs me by the arm. “Dance with me.”

Deaf to me protests, he drags me to the center of the square, where someone's cleared space away for dancing. They've coaxed some musicians to play for them, and dozens of couples have lined up. It's a boisterous tune, not quite a jig but close, and I soon recognize it as a folk song commonly known among the markets.

Keep your daft wages,
I ha'nt the time
T’ grapple and bargain
For pickled pork rinds

I told you me price
Now you've kept me too long
So take your half brass coin
And blast you, be gone!

I scowl at Aidan as he pulls me through the first steps of the dance. “What’s this about?”

“Why are there soldiers watching the market, Gwyn?” His voice is remarkably calm, but his blue eyes are steely.

I stiffen. “Soldiers? What? Where?”

“Don’t look.” His grip on me tightens. “What have you been up to?”


  1. Hi Nora!

    Your world building is fantastic! I love the lure of the familiar but unique and it seems like you've struck a great balance.

    I'm torn on the "me" instead of "my". On one hand I like that its a specific speech pattern unique to this world (or just Gwyn's character?) but I also found it a bit distracting and every time I read it, I had to make a very conscious effort to assure myself it was her manner of speaking, but it drew me out of the narrative each time.

    There is a whirlwind of activity happening in these first pages, is it possible to slow it down and focus on a bit less? Like I said, the world building is in depth, but I'm not sure where to focus the majority of my attention- on the fact the lady called her a witch? the fact she's a thief? That she's a dancer? Maybe pulling back from the
    peripheral details and keep the spot light on the most important help focus the reader's attention?

    Same for characters. There are a lot of named characters in this first bit and I don't know which ones are vital to know and remember vs which are just background characters. If its possible to overlook any of them, I think it would up the tension and get us to the conflict sooner.

    As it is, she kind of whirls through the crowd stealing without consequence, but she doesn't notice the increase of guards either, which seems odd since as a pickpocket she has to be very aware of her surroundings to make sure she isn't caught.

    I'd love to see a bit more into her mind to understand WHY she's picking pockets. Is it because she truly needs the money? Is it for the thrill of stealing? Getting a glimpse into her mind would help the reader connect more with Gywn's character

  2. Thank you so much for your advice!

    Yes, the "me" vs. "my" thing has sparked a lot of controversy with beta readers, which I can understand. I have considered making changes to that in the future, but at the moment, I think it's something that helps set the voice of the story apart. A. C. Gaughen did something similar in the SCARLET trilogy, where the main character uses "were" instead of "was" to portray her accent and the fact that she's low-born.

    As for the rest of your suggestions, I will most definitely take those into consideration in my rewrite, and try to work on those things. Thank you again!

  3. Hi Nora!

    Wow. So, objectively, I think you can cut down a lot of your description in the paragraphs starting with how Gwyn dances to how she's walking and pickpocketing (multitask for the win, lol), but I think your prose and mechanics of writing are SO GOOD. They flow so beautifully that it was a pleasure to read this.

    I do think the me vs. my is something you should consider changing, in different ways - to me, Gwyn's internal thoughts don't reflect this more low-born way that she's speaking. And really, since it's only one word in particular that's noticeable in her speech patterns, it doesn't strike me as particularly authentic? Honestly, every time I read 'me' it jarred me from the story a bit.

    I think we need some more motivations revealed by Gwyn - why she's dancing in the first place, how she's skilled at it, why she's thieving. She's very natural in what she does but it leaves a lot of gaps for a reader to struggle to fill in from the get-go.

    The ending of your pages also doesn't match the beginnings of your pages. In the beginning there's a sense of carefree happiness, Gwyn not having to be worried about anything, a jaunt in the fair, etc. but then you end the pages referencing soldiers coming into the scene, which should signal the tension in your MC's world rising. Instead I was a little lost when they're mentioned, and went back to the beginning to see if I didnt spot parts in the pages where the danger was more noticeable.

    Good luck on revisions!

    1. Hey Lisa!

      Thanks for your feedback! I appreciate your thoughts, and I hope the first revision will have polished up some of these problems.

  4. Your writing is excellent! I enjoyed reading this. I love the exchange between the group of musicians and the dancer. I do wonder about it being the first thing. Is this what your reader needs to know about her to be drawn into your story?

    I agree with the commenter above on motivation. What would show us what she wants most? What would set up the internal conflict of your book? I don't know that we get enough from these five pages to figure that out. We have a hint of trouble at the end with the soldiers, but otherwise, we don't seem to have much conflict. I'd think about a way to up the conflict early on.

    Your style is beautiful, and I like Gwyn already. Your world building is exceptional as well. I could picture the characters and the fair. I enjoyed the pacing as well. My one comment would be to find a way to hint at some motivations or raise the stakes a little earlier in the chapter.

    I really enjoyed this!


    1. Thank you very much! I appreciate your advice. Hopefully, some of those problems have been polished up in the first revision.

  5. I feel a bit disconnected from the narrator in the first paragraph. The description is abstract enough that it could be in 3rd person. That said, the language is beautiful and evocative. It might be possibly to slip in a thought from the narrator to ground us in her POV.

    “Me feet” threw me too. I think part of the problem is that although the dialogue is clearly in Scottish dialect, the narration doesn’t seem to be, so the phrase didn’t quite fit. I’m going to take a slightly different stance from previous commenters and say you could keep it—but only if you add more Scottish-isms, not less. Make all the narration have the same tone/abbreviations as the dialogue.

    There isn’t any description the narrator’s surroundings. I know she’s dancing, and there’s a crowd, but I’m not even entirely certain if it’s indoors or outdoors.

    When she says “Well done,” I’m not clear who she’s talking to—the musicians? A little more description of them would make that clearer.

    The moment where she gets caught stealing from the harem girl felt glossed over. Usually, when a pickpocket is caught, it’s a pretty dangerous situation, right? Does no one in the crowd try to grab her?

    I enjoyed the dialogue in this, and the description of the fair (I like how you use smells). Plus, what a great, exciting place to end the first five pages.

    1. Thank you very much for your advice! I've taken it into consideration, and hopefully fixed some of those problems in the first revision.

  6. Hi Nora,

    Thanks so much for sharing your pages. I find your prose quite colorful, descriptive and engaging. You're clearly a talented writer. But what I'd like to focus on in these notes has more to do with being a successful storyteller. I see a distinction between the two -- having a way with words is vitally important, but so too is creating a narrative with a strong current that pulls the reader along. To extend the watery metaphor here, I feel like we're kind of caught in an eddy that doesn't have a lot of forward momentum. There's so much going on -- it's dynamic and swirls with evocative description (which is great) -- but it left me feeling unsure of where it was taking me.

    I think what you need to do is streamline a bit here, cut back on some of the description and get us to an inciting incident more quickly and clearly. It would be great if something that related to the main conflict in the story was articulated in these first five pages. Something that sets the stakes. It can be a mystery that intrigues the reader or a dangerous scenario that imperils your MC or a conflict (emotional or otherwise) between characters. But whatever it is, it should be tied into the thrust of the narrative. It's about creating narrative momentum early on so an agent or editor will want to keep reading.

    Overall, these pages feel simply like (well-written) set-up, but we need to get to what's next. As my agent used to say: always start as late in the story as you can.

    Finally, I wasn't loving the "me" thing -- it definitely gave me pause every time I read it. I know others have commented on that already.

    Again, I thought the writing itself was terrific. Once you get the story moving apace, I'm sure this will be the start of a really nice manuscript.

    All best,

    1. Thank you so much for your time and advice, Rob. Hopefully, I've fixed some of these problems in the first revision. I do have a bit of a problem with setting up the stakes; I don't know if I'm supposed to say anything about plot, but it takes a bit of building before the main plot kicks in. I'm trying to figure out how to fix this, so I really appreciate your input!

  7. Hi Nora,

    There's such great setting and description in these pages! You have a real talent for that. I do agree with the comments above about having more forward momentum, focusing the beginning, and increasing the tension.

    My biggest thought is that this is a really interesting girl, and I wanted to see more action that she cared about from her. She seems pretty ambivalent about what she's doing, and if it doesn't matter to her, it won't matter to us. I think that's mostly the effect of the delayed plot here-- it seems like we haven't really gotten to it yet. We don't necessarily need the big inciting incident in these pages, but I do really want to know that something is a problem, something is going to change, something is at stake for her. If you can push that chain of events up sooner so we see it kicking off on page one, that will solve a lot of these issues.

    A few other notes: I know this is fantasy and not historical, but I would still avoid using "gypsy" as this almost always considered a racial slur and not one used by the Romani people themselves-- it was almost always a derogatory insult used by people who were not Romani. Some Romani people do use it in an effort to reclaim/push back, but that's very complicated. More on that here:

    The great thing about fantasy is that if you want her people/culture to be travelers talented in the arts, you can make up your own word for who they are, and by showing us their culture we will automatically compare it to cultures we know.

    1. Hey Kate, thanks so much for your advice. I don't know how much I can say about plot, but my problem with setting up stakes is that my inciting incident isn't directly related to the main plot, but only serves to add the motivation for the character. I'm working on moving the plot up, so I really appreciate your thoughts.

      Also, on the matter of gypsies. Thank you for pointing that out to me. I did have some back and forth about that myself. However, while traditionally associated with the ethnic Romani group, the word gypsy (uncapitalized) has also come to mean simply a wanderer. As in my story, gypsies are not an ethnic group, but like the Vikings in that "gypsy" is their occupation. Miriam Webster's third definition:

      Once again, I appreciate you informing me about this!

  8. Nora, forgive the late comments. I tend to be the last one every month!

    Your world building is beautiful. Your character is dynamic and funny and likable. You've done a great job making this scene three dimensional. I can see it, smell it, feel it, hear it, taste it. The smell of spices and cakes, the sound of the music,'ve incorporated a lot to bring the reader into your setting right away.

    One thing I would suggest is to scale back on the stealing of things. You spend quiet a bit of space talking about the things she lifts. The idea you're trying to convey is that she robs people to make her way in this life and I think that can be conveyed in just a few short sentences. I think you should keep the bit about the woman who doesn't like her "lot" because it gives the sense of what others thing of her. But consider scaling back on the others references of stealing. It'll open space for you to get to the action quicker. I sense it's coming, but with only five pages you were cut short.

    I've read the comments on the "me" and "my". At first it did throw me, however, once I got into the jest of the story I picked up we were dealing with either a Scottish or Irish cast. I'm on the fence as well with the others and here's the reason why. I do have an Irish character in one of my books, but only for a few chapters. I also use "me" with that particular character. However, because most of my characters are not Irish, I think it isn't as difficult to follow. I could be totally wrong. With an entire book, I wonder how long it will take a reader to fall into the rhythm. And this isn't a criticism by any means. Just a thought I had while reading. I'm just trying to imagine an entire book written like this. That being said, to be true to your character and the culture, I think you almost have to continue with that kind of dialect. As a reader, I'd like to see more pages to see how this flows as the story moves on.

    You spend a great deal with your scenery, but I wonder what Gwyn is thinking sometimes. For example, Gwyn is told that her kind isn't welcome and while she retorts back, we have no internal thought about how this makes this feel. Is this something she normally encounters? Does it hurt her feelings or is she numb to the insults because of all the years she's been considered less? I'd love to see you delve into her thoughts.

    Awesome, awesome entry. I love what you've got so far.

    1. No worries! I'm sure you're very busy.

      Thank you so much for your feedback, you're very right. I hope some of these problems have been fixed in the revision!