Saturday, October 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages October Workshop- Harris

Name: Lynn Harris 
Genre: Young Adult fantasy 
Title: Valista

I hear the staccato raps on the door—three times, terse—and they stop. Tears well in my eyes. The village healer. She’s seen fit to come.

I drop the damp rag clenched in my fist next to a bowl of water on the floor. A glance at my father on his pallet confirms he’s sleeping, and I rise from the ground beside him. I run a hand over my hair and straighten my cotton tunic and leggings, then cross the packed-dirt floor to the door. Pulling it open, I find a woman. Her dark hair is streaked with gray and pulled into a ponytail wrapped with leather twine, leaving her lined face in clear view. Her expression is aloof, but I sense her emotions as if they were my own. She’d rather be anywhere but here. I step from the threshold. “Please come in.”

She nods, saying nothing, and enters carrying the familiar satchel that holds the wares of her art. She glances around our mud hut with a grimace, and my gaze follows hers. A single room. Thread-bare rugs. Sleeping pallets on the floor instead of the usual cots. Nothing like the lavish quarters of a healer. 

My lips tighten—I know it’s sparse. I don’t need her to remind me. 

The healer kneels by my father and places a hand on his damp forehead. The faint flicker of our fire illuminates the goddess tattoo at the pulse point on her neck. She shuts her eyes, moves her lips in the ritual prayer calling Anahata to her aid, then removes her hand from my father and pulls her satchel forward. After lifting the flap, she retrieves a poppet crafted from coarse fabric with a simple painted face and places the doll on my father’s chest.

Reaching inside her shirt, she slides a necklace from beneath the cloth and pulls the leather strap free. She kisses a dark, jadeite stone lashed to the leather tie and lays it on the poppet.

I wrap my fingers around my own necklace. We all carry them, these green minerals found in the mountains far to the north. We keep them close for comfort and small healings—sometimes around the neck, sometimes in a special pouch hanging at the waist—but the healers use the large ones, the ones with the most clarity, the ones free of imperfections. Even at a distance, I feel the pulsing energy radiating from it, dwarfing the gentle throb of my own stone.

The healer’s places one hand on her gem and the other on my father’s chest. She begins to chant in the ancient language of our people, using the stone as a conduit to remove the sickness from my father and transfer it to the poppet.

Relieved to have someone watch him, I slip out the open door into the desert sunshine, the dry heat as familiar as my own skin. Our sheep have been neglected during my father’s illness, and I must see to them while I can. I hurry the short distance to the barn, my lambskin boots murmuring a soft whisper on the hard earth. 

Once in the shelter, a bleat of pain from a solitary ewe draws my attention to a corner. I feel her distress—she’s in labor and can’t deliver the lamb. I rush to her, drop to my knees in the straw and palpate her belly, locating the babe. It is not positioned correctly. Thank the goddess the healer came when she did. We can’t afford to lose a single life, and a breached lamb could kill the mother.

I shift to the tail end of the ewe and rub the fluid leaking from her womb over my hand and arm. Feeling far into the birth canal, I search for the lamb’s head. Instead, I find legs.

The ewe grunts as I root around, but her pain can’t be helped. I locate the baby’s hooves, wrap my hand around them to protect the mother, and pull. The hind legs exit the ewe’s body, and the newborn slides free. The ewe bleats her gratitude, but the lamb lies motionless.

I slip my fingers into the babe’s mouth and clear the mucus from its airway. Still no movement. I rub my hands over its wet wool and shake its tiny head, anguish choking my breath. Please, little one, live

My heart thrums with love for this new life, and a strange, hot pressure builds in my chest. My arms start to shake and the pressure releases with a whoosh of energy unlike anything I’ve ever felt, traveling down my arms into the limp animal. 

The lamb shudders and lifts its head from the straw. I look into its soft, golden brown eyes and smile as it emits a quiet cry.

The mother cleans her newborn, and I chant a prayer of gratitude for this addition to our livelihood. The lack of water in our irrigation canals has forced people from outlying areas to move to our village in search of food. We’ve pooled our resources to feed them all, and my flock has shrunk as a result. This new life will make a difference.

But the lamb … it felt like … well, it couldn’t have been. If it had been dead, then it still would be. Nothing I did could have made a difference.

My thoughts skitter to a halt when I hear the healer call my name from our hut. Adanya. My father never calls me that. He calls me ‘Girl.’ He despises me—my birth killed the woman he loved.

I don’t move from the straw, my fists tight to my thighs. The healer repeats the call, her tone harsh. After wiping my arm dry with a rag, I join her outside our hut. Her face is creased in a deep frown. “It is not good,” she says. 

I swallow hard. Our relationship is not much, but my father is all I have. 

She hands me the poppet. “I’ve transferred what sickness I could. Burn it to cleanse your hut.”

I sense her eagerness to be done with this business, so I hand her the bag of wool for payment I’ve placed outside the door, and she hurries away as all villagers do when forced to visit us. They have been this way my whole life—distant, disinterested, dismissive of me and my father

Clutching the doll in my hand, I wrap my arms around my stomach and enter the hut. The stench of sickness hangs in the air. A few steps take me to the fire, and I toss the poppet into the flames. It crackles and hisses when it ignites. Its smoke turns a bright green and forms a tornadic vapor that swirls out the smoke hole in the ceiling. The poppet disintegrates into ash.

When I return to my father, his dark eyes are open. I dip the cloth into the bowl of water, and mop his face and chest. His gaze, glassy with fever, locks onto mine, and he mutters, “Farai.”

I freeze at the use of my mother’s name. Before his illness, he often lamented how much I resemble her, torment seeping from every pore. He strokes my hair, hand trembling. “My Farai. So beautiful.” 

Love flows from him in a way I’ve never felt, and I squeeze my fingers into a fist around the cloth. This emotion is not for me.


  1. Hi Lynn,

    There's a lot here that I really like. You've started with immediate tension and the stakes are high. That's awesome!
    Then you have this line: "My lips tighten—I know it’s sparse. I don’t need her to remind me." That gives me insight into their situation in the society and her character--she's got pride. The end of the scene is also really nice with the Dad seeing her as her mom so that he is actually kind. That tells us a ton about their relationship. I think you can trim some of the description--don't need a lot in the early pages, in my opinion--but other than that the sequence of events with the dad is really strong.

    I also like what happens with the ewe, but it feels like too much happening here. She discovers her healing power in the barn--or at least we get a hint of it--and that's really important. So I'm not sure you do it justice by having it happen while the healer is in the hut and she'd be focused on her dad. One thought: could she hear the ewe in pain and discover that the ewe is in trouble here. But it hasn't reached crisis yet. Then, you could finish the dad scene and in the next scene, perhaps later that night, have her deal with the ewe and bring it back to life. That way you might have more time to really build it up the way that it feels it might deserve.

    Nice start. I already have sympathy for your main character so I'm rooting for her and you've also hinted at two things that might change her world: her dad dying, and her being a healer.

  2. Hi Lynn,

    Thank you for sharing your work.

    I like everything about this. You let the reader know so much about your MC in a very short amount of time -- her humble circumstances, the hint of healing magic, the responsibilities she bears, the impact the loss of one lamb will have on her family's finances, the potential for her to come into her own power, and a complicated relationship with her father. Nicely done.

    The only suggestion I would make: consider removing 'terse' from your opening line. It felt redundant (you already have staccato).

    Great opening. Good luck with it.


  3. Hi Lynn,

    I really like the scene with the healer, but I'm not sure why we need this part with the ewe. You want to spend your first 5 pages firmly establishing your world and your main character. When you use flip around between two things, it's unsettling to the reader. I also can't see any emotional purpose to the part with the ewe. The scene with her father shows us her world and her relationship with him (and this comes with conflict which is great). What is the scene with the ewe doing and what is the purpose of it? She should have a goal in every scene. If the one here is to save her father, then everything she does should work toward that.

    Also, watch the telling words you are using. You should never tell us she hears something (she should just hear it) and you should never refer to someone in a way that you'd do when speaking to someone (so "my father" would just be Father or Pa or whatever she calls him).

    Good luck!

  4. Hi Lynn,

    I love so much about this opening! There's a great story world here, and I feel immersed into the setting, and your character seems like someone I want to get to know more. All of those things are well done.

    I have a few suggestions that I think will help to tighten things up and propel the wonderful elements of this story opening forward. :)

    First, while I love learning about your world and the cool magical differences being described here, I think there might be a bit more description than what's needed. Maybe think about combing through and looking at everything that's described and pick and choose which are more important to the opening scene. Description is good for getting readers to visualize, but can also slow the pacing if there's too much.

    Second, I personally love to dive deep into a character's point of view (POV) and since first person is chosen here, there is a need to be inside this character's head. Certain phrases like "I hear" or "I see" can put a little wall between the reader and the character's actual thoughts. Because when someone knocks on a door, for example, we don't generally think, "I hear a knock." We just hear it. This phrase: The faint flicker of our fire illuminates the goddess tattoo at the pulse point on her neck. Is a perfect example of her just seeing something. And I LOVE this sentence because not only is it that deeper POV, but it tells me something about her culture without an info dump, and it's a really cool detail. So, this is a very good "showing" instead of "telling" sentence.

    Third, the pacing is a little off here. I love that she heals the lamb. That is really cool. But I think maybe it's offsetting the urgency of what's going on with her dad. They feel like they should be two different scenes, not part of the same scene. I'd like to be immersed into her world with what's going on with her father and the healer and get a feel for the relationship there, and then perhaps learn about her abilities with the lamb. Hopefully I'm explaining that well.

    And Fourth, I think the emotional investment pacing is a little off as well. In the second line, before we've even really had a chance to meet your character, she's crying. That's fine, but it doesn't pull anything emotional from me because I don't know her yet, and I don't see her dying father yet. I'd like to see what's going on with dad a bit and maybe get some of the tension of "will the healer come?" before I see the tears or see the healer coming. That way I can perhaps be more emotionally invested. And even if she doesn't like her father all that much, or he's cruel to her, if I can see some of that cruelty and a hint of her personality, I can feel sad that she'll be losing her only caretaker or the only one who can provide for her. I can be scared with her that she might lose the house. You know? So think about letting the emotion happen AFTER you've given your readers reason to connect.

    I know I had a few things to say, but I really enjoyed the opening and think you have a lot of strengths here. Best of luck!


  5. Lynn,

    I'm really intrigued by the world you are building here!

    My thoughts:

    I feel like the starting point could be altered. I was a little distracted from the healer's arrival by not knowing what was going on with the father. What led to his illness? Was it sudden or long term? Then, just as I was really getting into what the healer was doing, Adanya leaves.

    I absolutely loved the birthing scene. You either have assisted in animal birth or did some really amazing research. Whichever it is, bravo. You nailed what birth (animal or human) is like - messy and bordering on completely repulsive.

    I hesitate to tell you to cut something out because I liked what your first pages held. But maybe rearranging some things might help? Maybe finding the ewe first? I know that's hard because Adanya is caring for a sick person. I don't know - just food for thought.

    All in all, very interesting. I'll be looking forward to next week's revision.


    1. I now believe you can find anything you need to know on the internet, especially YouTube. The videos I've watched for this story, oy vey. A boa constrictor trying to eat a man had to be the most, um, interesting? :)

  6. Good start!

    Love the opening line, we get a great sense of the MC's world. And that final sentence was a good one too, I'm already getting a lot of feels! The interaction with the healer was good as well.

    I like the set up with the MC and the ewe a lot, but I do think it feels a bit out of place. I think it's because I was expecting a bit more reaction from the MC, but because of the situation with her father, that's where her attention goes. I would like to see the MC have a little more time to process what happened.

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  8. Hello, Lynn,

    There's so much about this that appeals to me!

    I'm torn on the ewe scene. I'm drawn to the parallel of the sickness transferring to the poppet at nearly the same time the MC transfers life into the ewe. It's clever and poignant and having one side of that happen without the other seems like a waste. But, like other commenters, I have my concerns that it's making for too much happening in this short amount of space. Perhaps, if it can't happen simultaneously, what if it bookends the section? In the beginning of the chapter, the father's sickness is transferred, and in the end (beyond what's being critiqued here), the ewe is in trouble and it's hinted that our MC has magical powers. I think it still gives the scene that sense of symmetry that it currently has, but the pacing would be improved.

    Nearly everything else is spot on! I could see getting rid of or parsing out the second and third paragraphs so that we open right on the healer arriving and getting to work. Those two paragraphs make for some run-up that may not be necessary. The details are important, but they can probably be inserted gradually throughout the rest of the scene.

    The father using the name of the MC's mother makes me feel for her all the more. It's another great touch. I understand in just this short time why he resents her, and I'm interested to learn why she doesn't feel likewise about him. She already comes off as a mature character even when she perhaps has an excuse not to be, and that's compelling. The healer's magic is inventive. This is a strong start, and I think after some rearranging it will be even stronger!