Monday, September 11, 2017

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Politano Rev 1

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.

In me sixteen years, I’ve heard a thousand things called “magical”, but dancing is its own magic completely. I should know.

Dizzy and breathless, I curtsy 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, the old fiddler, hands me a rag to mop me face with, 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 head.

“Good earnings,” our drummer Aiden observes, rattling the coins in our 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?”

I roll me eyes and tune out the rest of their conversation. I’ve worked with them long enough to know that Aiden and Fergus will make plans to drink every copper they’ve earned, Kagen will call them old drunks, and then they’ll all make vague, empty threats that serve only to bolster each one’s pride. Men.

I, on the other hand, have more important things to do. Tonight is the first time I’ve been in any town since winter, and every daft sheep from here to Baile Gaelu is flaunting their finery. I intend to take full advantage of it.

“I’ve had a night,” I announce, getting to me feet. Aidan offers me the cup, but I wave it away. I have me own ways of earning money.

Tying me hair up, I wrap a square of plain cloth about it and tuck any errant curls away. Then I offer them a sailor’s salute, and plunge into the crowd.

The Lunster Spring Festival brings visitors from all over the valley, come to see the gypsies perform. Rich and poor spill over the lines that separate our ways of life, crushed together by the desire for entertainment. In the vast outdoor square, with the night air unable to chill us and the smell of sweet cakes and roasted nuts tempting us forward, I might be brushing elbows with a fisherman 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 a thick ring 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 guise of steadying her. Another pouch of coins is tucked into me skirts as I duck behind the fat old cow of a butcher to avoid the harem girl's angry shouts of, “Thief! Give my jewelry back, diabhal!”

I’m lost in the shuffle before anyone bothers to notice.

The rule is never to be seen. It may seem obvious for anyone in this line of work, but I have to be especially careful. One slip, one look at me hair, and I’d be done for. There aren’t many witches in Gaelfre. It’d take less than a day to round us up. But I am practiced now, in the way that only the threat of an empty stomach and sleeping on the street can teach a person.

Not that I’m under the delusion that I steal solely what I need. Half measures never got anyone anywhere, if you ask me.

Humming contentedly, I follow the flow of people past the firebreathers and mentally tally up me treasures. I’ll have to sell to a jeweler, one of the kind that don’t mind where the things come from so long as they get it at a low price, and they’ll most likely haggle me to ten silvers less than the worth. Still, I’ve only just started, and already I’ve earned double what would have been waiting for me in that cup. I’ll eat well tonight.

At Fests like these, dancing is merely for fun. The wages aren’t enough to even feed me year round, and I want much more than food. However, it has the added benefit of providing me a way of slipping in without a fuss. On me own, the guards would likely find a reason to throw me out. But people are strangely accepting of oddities if you offer a bit of diversion.

I eye the flock of brightly colored market stalls at the end of the square, where vendors sell every imaginable ware from ribbons to pots to magic cures. Me pockets are getting full, but I wonder if I could fit a dagger….

“Gwyn.” Aidan’s voice is a hiss in me ear.

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

“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 musicians play a boisterous market song and dozens of couples have lined up. With anyone else as handsome as Aidan, I might be pleased. But he’s ten years me senior, and the old boy is desperately in love with me friend Faolan. They’ve been sweethearts for ages. I’d never be able to stand him that long.

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? Where?” How did I miss them?

“Don’t look.” His grip on me tightens. “They’re not in armor. I only noticed because one of them drew his sword, and he had the king’s seal on his hilt.” Aiden glares down at me. “What trouble have you made?”

“Nothing!” I protest. Then, when he gives me an all-too-knowing look, I amend, “Nothing more than usual.

He’s unconvinced. “Think.”

Huffing, I cast me mind back over the past couple weeks. The last few days have been occupied with non-stop traveling to Lunster, which meant no time for anything other than picking up a few odds and ends in towns we stopped over. Before that… well, there was the incident in Sian, but I’d worked that out. Besides that, I draw up a blank.


  1. I love this line:

    Not that I’m under the delusion that I steal solely what I need. Half measures never got anyone anywhere, if you ask me.

    It speaks so much about Gywn's character and definitely endears her to me!

    I like the changes to the beginning, It seems more focused, the image is just as beautiful, but its crisper in my mind.

    I'd like to know why she refuses her share of the dancing money, above the fact that she can raise her own funds. I feel like she's intelligent, so why would she pass up money that' she'd worked hard to earn, it just means more money in her pockets.

    I like the hints at why she steals and if this is explained more fully later I can be satisfied, but if not, I think another line or two might be useful.

    And, does she consider her dance troupe her family? Does she have a family somewhere else? again, if this answered somewhere else than disregard- but if she does consider her troupe her family, maybe play that up a bit more?
    * two thumbs up * love your revisions!

    1. Thanks so much!

      I will elaborate on why she didn't take the coins. Basically, since people tip in small coins (think pennies/nickels/dimes for us), her share would be a bunch of small change and take up a lot of room in her pockets, which could be better used. I will explain that in the next revision, thanks for pointing that out!

      I've been trying to cut down on word count because there's a paragraph after the final one that gives a good insight into Gwyn's life and why she's stealing. Hopefully I'll find a way to fit that in.

      Her family is actually a really big part of the story and I start delving into that about two pages after this. About two paragraphs after this, a little more about her relationship with Aidan in particular is added, so yeah. It just doesn't come up quite yet xP

      Thank you again!

  2. I can tell you've done great work with your first set of revisions!

    Some comments:
    You have beautiful prose in your opening line/paragraph, but I’m not sure it works to hook readers for your novel. It's great word useage but it's rather vague - she's describing dancing and that's pretty much all. I don't get a sense of what to expect, and this kind of still continues on during the opening 2-3 pages.

    The tension is missing for me. Perhaps a good solution is to have your MC notice certain things as she’s dancing – an increased presence of soldiers, knowing there’s danger in the audience but she needs to dance because she’s desperate for money, etc. That would help heighten the tension in the first page and give readers a clear sense that the MC lives in dangerous times.

    There’s still some backstory and world building (Lunster Spring Festival, for example) that I’m not sure is necessary. I think you can still tighten the first two pages a LOT, thus bringing the conflict and tension of the soldiers, and plot, up faster.

    A suggestion, but I’m not seeing clearly why she’s a dancer for money but then also moonlights as a pick pocket – especially since she seems to be successful with her dancing for a crowd. If her thieving skills are important to the plot, you can disregard, but perhaps a solution would be to have her be helping the pick pockets of her group while she’s dancing – she can be the distraction while her friends in the crowd are lightening the pockets of people watching, just enough to perhaps not be noticeable, and then the soldiers can come in?

    I think this whole section of paragraphs where Gwyn isn’t really actively doing anything could be very much whittled down, starting from "Me hands are quick and feather-light, barely touching on one person" to "At Fests like these, dancing is merely for fun."

    Where you've ended the pages on this revision round is a little confusing, for me, because Gwyn is confused and the reader’s will be as well – she’s also thinking back on things that don’t hold context for readers and may lose them – ex: ‘the incident in Sian.'

    Good luck, can't wait to see what your final revisions are!

    1. Hey Lisa! Thank you very much for your suggestions.

      I personally am a fan of books that give a bit of insight into the character's day-to-day life before throwing everything off the deep end. Usually, I find that books have about a chapter or two of building before the main conflict starts. I've chosen this particular scene because, while it gives a glimpse into Gwyn's everday life, it's also where the chain of events that snowball into the main plot begin. So, yes, my beginning doesn't have immediate tension, but I would argue that it's not always necessary. The tone I'm going for is one of excitement and fun, because Gwyn is a very fun-loving character.

      As for her motivation for stealing and dancing, I'm afraid I don't quite understand your confusion. "At Fests like these, dancing is merely for fun. The wages aren’t enough to even feed me year round, and I want much more than food." Though the audience is generous on this particular night, generosity is relative. Ten dollars is a vast improvement over ten cents, but that doesn't mean it's enough to live on. "I’ve only just started, and already I’ve earned double what would have been waiting for me in that cup."

      I can see what you mean about the ending of the revision, but unfortunately, the following paragraph just didn't fit. It's not the ending of anything in the actual document, if that helps. The "incident in Sian" part was intentional. It comes up a couple pages later, and is actually quite important to the plot. I didn't elaborate because I like to sow questions. I think a bit of vagueness and hinting help breed curiosity in readers, which in turn helps keep them reading.

      Thank you very much for your thoughts!

  3. Hi Nora,

    I really love your revisions! Gwyn fascinates me-- I love how much she loves dancing, and it's fascinating that she's a thief too, and a person with real ambition. I did notice one use of "gypsies" that looks like it might have gotten missed-- "The Lunster Spring Festival brings visitors from all over the valley, come to see the gypsies perform." I especially love all the tension you build with her stealing, the soldiers, the hint of trouble, the "incident in Sian." It makes me want to keep reading!
    My only other thought would be that while your prose is really good, it could be great. It's honestly good, but if you want to take it up a notch, give us those magical ingredients. Rich emotion, descriptions that surprise us without being flowery, subtext that makes us read between the lines, sensory detail that makes us feel like we're there. That's what agents and editors will be looking for.

    For example, I read a description of flowers that absolutely hooked me. The writer said that a vase was crammed so full of lilies that they were bursting out the top like fireworks, and that they were her favorite flower because they were so mean. Lilies being mean and lilies being compared to fireworks makes me think. It surprises me while also striking me as true. It makes me look at lilies in a new way for just a second. It convinces me this author has something to say, and it's going to be compelling.

    I'd take a look at writers whose voice and style you really admire. Find a passage and read it slowly, 1 line at a time, to see how they describe action, trees, emotion, body parts. What words and images make you think or make you feel. I'd even try typing out a passage in a word document. Feeling the syntax and word choice of a truly great writer by typing it out can really make you see things you haven't before, and shake up some of your own habits. Of course you don't want to mimic them, but if you type out the opening pages of your 5 favorite books, I guarantee you'll find something that helps add depth and nuance and subtext to your own writing.

    There are also some really amazing books on writing with some great prose advice linked here on my website's writer resources page: I think Donald Maass's The Emotional Craft of Fiction there could really help with this, as well as the typing exercise. Also, just slowing down to pick the lines you want to be art. Not flowery, over the top, abstract descriptions of stuff that doesn't matter, but those lines that will make the book stay with us. Subtext, nuance, surprising little gems hidden all over that make us think THIS character sees the world in a unique way, THIS writer is going to take us somewhere special, THIS book will surprise us.

    It's clear you're highly invested and your writing is focused, vibrant, with good tension and questions to hook us. All it needs is nuance, subtext, depth to take it up a level.

    1. Thank you so much for your advice! I will definitely work on my imagery, and hopefully improve it in the next draft. I really appreciate your time.

  4. I really enjoyed the revision! The pages seemed to move along at a faster pace. You've tightened it nicely.

    My only comment is that I wonder if the paragraph explaining who Aidan is could be incorporated more into the action or dialogue, They banter back and forth already, so maybe Gwyn could say something to him that makes her feelings about him/their relationship clear? Or perhaps she's wondering where his sweetheart is?

    You have a really beautiful style and I love Gwyn's personality!

    1. Thank you very much! I'm not quite sure what you mean about the paragraph explaining who Aidan is, though; do you mean "Deaf to me protests, he drags me to the center of the square, where musicians play a boisterous market song and dozens of couples have lined up. With anyone else as handsome as Aidan, I might be pleased. But he’s ten years me senior, and the old boy is desperately in love with me friend Faolan. They’ve been sweethearts for ages. I’d never be able to stand him that long."

  5. You’ve clarified several things with the revisions, nice job! I also like the addition of a little bit more backstory (such as the main character being a witch.) The “noodle incident” in Sian was also amusing. Your main character seems like a lot of fun—I like a girl who’s a bit bad.

    I think you could cut down your explanation on why the main character doesn’t bother taking the coins for dancing—you don’t need two paragraphs on it. In the comments, you mention she just wants to leave her pockets free for more valuable stuff, and I think that’s all the explanation you need. Or it would be just as good an explanation to say she’ll come back to ask for her share later after the festival is over.

    1. Thank you! I am in need of areas to cut down my word count so I can improve on others, so thanks for the suggestion.

  6. Hi Nora,

    Excellent job with the revisions! This draft moves so much faster and hooks me much more firmly than the last draft. I definitely want to read on!

    So now that we've streamlined a bit, we should talk about opportunities to refine these first five pages. The biggest thing for me at this point would be to show a little more emotion/interiority in your mc/narrator. One of the great things about writing in first-person is the intimacy you can establish between your narrator and your readers. Everything the narrator is feeling and thinking can, if you choose, be conveyed directly to the reader, which helps the reader identify and bond with the character.

    There are a few places in these pages that I think cry out for insight into Gwyn's head and heart. Places where we should be seeing her internal reaction to something that's happening externally. Here are a number of examples:

    -- As she surveys the crowd, she thinks, "every daft sheep from here to Baile Gaelu is flaunting their finery. I intend to take full advantage of it." How does she feel about this? Is she excited? Nervous? Does she feel resentment toward these people? Pity? Anger? I want to feel what she feels since this is the "first time I’ve been in any town since winter."

    -- Again, how does she feel when the harem girl yells at her: "I duck behind the fat old cow of a butcher to avoid the harem girl's angry shouts of, “Thief! Give my jewelry back, diabhal!”" Does this unnerve her? Does she laugh it off? We should be able to SEE the effect it has on Gwyn.

    -- When Aiden surprises her, you write: "I jump, and then smack him." You show the physical action of jumping, but what's going on inside her at that moment? Is her heart racing? Adrenaline pumping? I'd love to see an emotional response here.

    -- Similar to the last example, take a look at this: "I stiffen. “Soldiers? Where?” How did I miss them?" All we see of her response here is that she stiffens. But if this is a life-and-death situation, I think she'd be reacting in a deeper way. And she'd probably think more than just "How did I miss them?" Would she be chastising herself for being careless? Or for risking the safety of others of her kind? Does a cold chill run through her at the realization that she's in trouble?

    I think if you go through your pages carefully, you'll find a number of other examples where Gwyn doesn't react enough to what's happening. Even when she talks about how the dancing is just for fun, I'd love to know how it actually makes her feel. Why she finds it rewarding.

    These pages are strong right now. With some more focus on emotion and interiority, I think they'd be even stronger!

    I'm looking forward to seeing where you take these pages!

    All best,

    1. Hi Rob,

      Thank you so much for your kind words and your advise. Finding a good way to portray characters' emotions is definitely something I struggle with, so thank you very much for pointing out some areas that could use improvement. I really appreciate your time, and hopefully the next draft will be better in that area.