Saturday, November 4, 2017

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Fohlin

Name: Michelle Fohlin
Genre: Middle Grade fantasy
Title: Daughter of the Forest


April 1755, Princeton, Massachusetts

“Wait for me!” Lucy Keyes calls to her sisters.

The girls turn to her and there’s a quick flash of annoyance in their eyes, making it clear that she’s the last person they want to see. Their mouths pull taut into grim lines, and Lucy is sure they’ll say something about not wanting to watch after a little baby, that she’ll spoil their fun. But she can take care of herself. She’s not that much smaller than they are. And why should they have all the fun at the lake while she stays at home watching Mother spin wool?

Anna is the first to speak while Patty just rolls her eyes. “You shouldn’t be here, Lucy. Go back home to Mama.” They turn around and continue on their way, without so much as a backward glance at her. The elms on either side of the leaf littered path swallow them up, leaving Lucy stranded. She expected them to argue with her about having followed them into the woods, but she didn’t expect them to just leave her.

Almost as if they have their own power, her arms flop to her sides and she lets her head droop as though it’s a heavy weight she can’t support. Her sisters’ laughter trails to her like the lingering scent of dinner’s roast and it makes her eyes sting. She’s sure they’re laughing at her. She doesn’t want to cry, she’s not a baby, but there’s nothing she can do to stop a fat tear from coloring a rock at her feet.

Patty and Anna are farther away now, their giggles reduced to ghostly whispers through the leaves and she can’t tell what direction they’ve gone. Somewhere to her left, a single blue jay’s call cuts through the still air. It, too, sounds like it’s laughing at her. She grabs the rock, now wet from her tears, and throws it towards the bird. The stone doesn’t get very far, but flapping wings tells her she’s at least made the feathered meanie take notice of her.

Her vision is still blurred, and she wipes the tears with an angry swipe. But her clear vision doesn’t make her feel any better. Her stomach flips like stones being tossed at the bottom of a raging river. In every direction there are trees, no matter how many times she turns around. She can’t see the path she took here, the one that would lead her home. There’s also no path to Patty and Anna. She can’t see her sisters, can’t hear them anymore. Why didn’t they just let her accompany them to the lake?

Ohnoohnoohno, she thinks. What have I done? The milk she drank for breakfast sits sourly in the bottom of her stomach, and it threatens to make another appearance.

“Patty? Anna?” She hears the hitch in her voice. Is that what panic sounds like? She doesn’t know why she’s calling for them, there’s no way they’ll hear her through all these trees.


She waits, listens. But her voice is lost in the evergreens. Not even her echo calls back.


A twig snaps in the distance and she turns her head to see who—or what—it is. She can’t make out anything, but she does hear more sticks breaking under someone’s—or something’s— feet. Oh I hope I hope I hope it’s not a bear. Her heart beats faster, in time with her shallow breaths. Could it be an Indian? Lucy doesn’t know what Indians are, but Patty said they’d get her if she didn’t behave.

"Mama?” Her voice shakes.

A large figure comes into view, but it’s not her mother and it’s not an Indian. It’s a neighbor, but she doesn’t remember his name, only overheard snippets of a secretive conversation between her parents. For some reason, the man hates her father.

And he’s looking at her as though she’s nothing but dead flies in his sugar pot.

Like he hates all children and wants them all gone.

“Hello? Mister? Can you help me?” Lucy tries her sweetest girl-eye face on him as he comes closer, breathing like an angry bull.

“You did me wrong, Robert,” he says, and that makes no sense, because Robert is her father. I’m Lucy, she thinks, I don’t look like Papa at all. She might have even laughed if she wasn’t so alone and this man wasn’t so frightening.

He comes closer still, and raises his fist as if about to strike.


A thousand thoughts flutter through her mind and the last lingered like a winter breeze, chilly and forbidding. Why did my sisters abandon me?


December, Present Day, Mount Wachusett, Princeton, Massachusetts

The winter night air kissed Jemma’s nose like the whisper of a grave. Good grief, Massachusetts was cold. It had been a year since her family moved here from Hawaii, and she didn’t think she’d ever get used to the difference in temperatures. Sure, the snow was cool the first time she had seen it, but she had the feeling that she’d never get used to this piercing frigidity, after a lifetime in the tropics.

She adjusted her gloves and the knit band keeping her ears from freezing off her head, cinched her hood tighter around her chin. Then she gripped her poles as her twin brother, Jaxon flew past her. Trust him to master skiing after a single lesson while Jemma wobbled around looking like a giraffe that had just been born.

“Come on, Jem!” he called after her, white powder spraying her goggles.

Skiing had been her dad’s idea. He wanted his family to become involved in one of his childhood loves in the hopes it would soften their uprooting. Everyone, even her four-year-old sister, Nora, got the hang of it. Everyone, that is, except the baby giraffe.

“Be there in a sec!” she shouted, though only Mother Nature heard her; Jaxon was nearly halfway down the hill.

She blew a plume of frosty breath. She couldn’t image how anyone got used to this weather, why everyone didn’t migrate during the winter months.

With a final inhalation, one that chilled her lungs, she finally set off down the hill, praying that she wouldn’t end up rolling like a tumbleweed to the bottom. She needed to make one of these runs side by side with her brother. If she could prove she could do something, anything athletic here, she might have a chance of getting them to hang out again like they always did as kids. Ever since they moved, and especially since they started middle school, she and Jaxon drifted farther apart. It broke her heart.

She gained speed and her heart beat a persistent thrum in her chest. She couldn’t see anything except the tunnel of light and snow before her. She was actually doing it! Her knees wobbled a couple times, but she hadn’t fallen yet.

And then a scream cut through the night, followed by the low moan of a wounded animal that gained intensity as Jemma’s legs faltered. She careened down the rest of the hill on her side, skis askew in the air, a woman’s keening wail providing the soundtrack to her embarrassment.

# # #

“It almost looked like you meant to go down that way!” Jaxon held his stomach, laughing like she was his personal comedian.

“Maybe I did,” she grumbled.


  1. Hi Michelle, Thanks for participating! I enjoyed reading your pages. Your writing is vivid and you have a knack for creating tension. It wasn't clear how many girls there were at first - is there any way you can set up that Lucy is the youngest of three? Also - I didn't get a sense of how old she was - she seemed really young to me. Some of this is a bit overwritten - I think if you simplify some of the descriptions, the opening will flow even faster. The paragraph that starts "almost as if they have their own power, her arms flop to her sides..." This is overwrought. Simplify it. I also don't think the "trailing laughter...lingering scent of dinner's roast" metaphor works because it's sound vs. smell. Can you take out the line "like he hates all children and wants them all gone" - the line before is strong (and so deliciously vivid!), and gets that point across already. I would also be mindful about stereotyping Indians in a negative light.

    It's a very suspenseful opening... It is jarring to move to the modern, but I also like your voice there too - the language is vivid, but again, overwrought at times. Simplify. Can you say "newborn giraffe" instead of "like a giraffe that had just been born?" Small edits like that can improve the flow of the story. The final paragraph when Jemma falls - there's a lot happening there. A scream, low moan of a wounded animal, and a woman's keening wail -- is this all happening at once? Are they near woods? Are the scream and the keening wail the same thing? This confused me. (and was she concerned at all?) Overall, I think this is a great start though! Robin

    1. Thanks for your comments Robin! I think that's something I have to keep watching myself for--I get a little carried away with descriptions :)

      Regarding the N. Americans, you're right, I don't want to come across as stereotypical or offensive, but I'm playing her sister's rudeness (which many colonists would have treated them with) against a later chapter when Lucy encounters Narragansett women who care for her. Do you think that works?

    2. Hey Michelle - I was going to add after my stereotype sentence - Is this important to the plot? If it is - then of course, I understand why it needs to be in there. I'm by no means an expert and I would definitely recommend a sensitivity reader if you have any concerns about those parts. Can't wait to read your revision!

    3. Thanks Robin! I ended up just cutting the line. It's not really important to the plot after all :)

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  3. Hi Michelle! I love contrast between the past and present. It immediately pulled me since I wanted to know the connection between the two storylines.
    I actually wrote down a few notes similar to Robin's, so I won't be redundant, but do agree that a few of the lines could be removed for the sake of simplicity and improving flow.
    This might be nitpicky, but for some reason the "ohnoohnohno" was off putting. I'm not sure why, but maybe just a Oh. No, no, no, no, no, NO. Or something to that effect.
    My last comment is when you mentioned the man who hated her father, I wanted to hear just a snippet of the conversation she heard so I could understand what she heard that made her think the man hates her father.
    That's all, I look forward to reading more!

    1. I like the suggestions, thanks! And it's not nitpicky at all. Now that you point it out, that string of oh nos isn't working for me either. And I think a snippet of that conversation could be really effective.

  4. Hi Michelle,
    The opening is chilling (no pun intended)-- a man who would strike a small girl is pure evil, no matter what her father did. If he was indeed angry like a bull, why wouldn't she run in any direction? Scream? I didn't realize that she had stepped far enough into the forest to be lost, so it took me a minute to reorient myself when her vision is blurred and then she realizes she's lost.
    The conflict with her sisters treating her like the baby came through clearly, and Lucy feels young and helpless.
    In the second section, I like Jemma and her hopes to be reconnected to Jaxson. I did wonder why they are letting a novice skier try a hill at night where she can't see anything but a tunnel of light (that was unclear to me). When she falls to the scream, what happened? I was confused why Jaxson is laughing and joking at the bottom when I thought someone had been attacked. Also, if someone was screaming, would she be grumbling at the bottom or afraid, ready to get help or tell someone what she heard?

    I am interested to see how these two pieces tie together and what fantasy elements will emerge. I had forgotten the genre by the time I reached the end and guessed it might be a mystery-- I was surprised to look back up and see fantasy, since I didn't see any fantasy elements yet.
    That said, I like Jemma's vulnerability and need to reconnect with her family and I look forward to reading the revision.

    1. Thanks Sue! I'll definitely clear up those areas.

      What's most terrible to me is that Lucy's story is based on historical evidence. Their neighbor admits on his death bed to killing her, though other sources claim she was taken by a Native tribe to Canada.

      I'm not sure fantasy is the right thing to call my book. It's half contemp./half historical with fantasy elements. So I'm kind of afraid that I'm misleading people by calling it fantasy...

  5. Hi Michelle!

    I enjoyed reading this. The section with Lucy was suspenseful and intriguing, and I loved Jemma’s voice and her self-deprecating humor. I’m very curious to see how the two different storylines end up coming together!

    I felt like Lucy’s section could be pared down a bit in order to get to the conversation with the creepy neighbor sooner (that’s the part that hooked me). There are some redundant lines—for example, you could cut “making it clear that she’s the last person they want to see,” since this is already illustrated nicely by the quick flash of annoyance in her sisters’ eyes, as well as the following sentence. There are also quite a few similes/metaphors throughout. You could trim some of these to make your effective comparisons (like “dead flies in his sugar pot”—loved that one) stand out more. And I liked how Lucy referred to the blue jay as a “feathered meanie,” but does this fit the time period?

    Jemma’s section was fun to read, though the opening sentence didn’t really work for me. There was also some repetition of “she’d never get used to…” in the first paragraph. For some reason it felt a bit more YA than MG to me… maybe it was the way she talked about how she and Jaxon had been drifting apart, which felt like it had a kind of nostalgic distance. Maybe you could show us instead? Like, when he says, “Come on, Jem!” is he inviting her along or mocking her for her hesitation? This might give us a window into their relationship that feels more immediate.

    I was also confused about the scream at the end—was there a woman and an actual animal wailing? Or just a woman that sounded like an animal? There was an abrupt change in tone here from something intriguing and potentially serious (keening, scream) to Jaxon’s laughter and Jem’s embarrassment/annoyance. I want to know what happened during that scene break.

    All in all, this is a promising opening and I’m looking forward to reading the revision!

    1. Thanks Alanna! You're right about the end. It's a pretty abrupt transition in the confines of the 1st 5 pages. I got rid of it here so I can flesh it out in the full.

  6. Hey Michelle-

    Great start! I got drawn in to the first section very quickly, I think because of the immediacy and realness of Lucy's voice.

    I found the sister unit to be a bit awkward, since the actions were ascribed to both of them as one. Maybe you could offer a few words of description about the sisters? That would also let us know how many sisters there were and that they are older than Lucy.

    It would also be helpful to have an idea of how far she is from home on this trail, just to add to the peril and fear of being lost.

    I liked the physicality of the description of the milk in her stomach to demonstrate her feeling of fear. I wonder if you can use a description with this same kind of physicality later when you say "it broke her heart" in the next section. That phrase just felt a bit cliche compared to some of the vivid turns of phrase you employ throughout the rest of the excerpt.

    I was a little confused by the description of Jemma's skiing wipeout. Maybe try to explain it by saying what she must have looked like to observers (so you can stick to the close POV).

    All in all this is an intriguing start. I'm definitely interested to see if Lucy comes back and how the two timelines relate to one another.

    1. Thanks Steph! These comments are helpful for my revisions! Your note about the sisters make me think I threw in the twins from The Shining. Not what I was going for :D

  7. Hello Michelle,

    Thanks for sharing your pages with us today!

    Right off the bat, there are many interesting elements here. The young sister, abandoned. The modern day girl, struggling to re-connect with her sibling. I like the parallel structure of sibling interaction happening between the two scenes, but I'm not sure where we're going yet!

    In books with layered stories connected thematically, like ECHO, it's important to give the reader a sense of the over-arching structure as soon as possible. It may not be possible, though, for you to show us that in five pages. Still, I think communicating how this story will be tied together is important and should come across, even if to a small degree, in the opening 5 pages. Look at REFUGEE, for example. Three separate narratives that intertwine and linked by the title. Thematically, we KNOW we are reading stories about refugees, so we can make the leap in our mind. I can't find that connection here, yet, and we need a little more to go on.

    While you do a great job of communicating action and tension, the writing could use some polishing overall. Much of it is wordy, such as the opening:

    "The girls turn to her and there’s a quick flash of annoyance in their eyes, making it clear that she’s the last person they want to see. Their mouths pull taut into grim lines, "

    Those sentences could easily be condensed. You could lose the first sentence entirely, as the second sentence repeats the same image. Read aloud to identify places where you can make the writing smoother and more concise.

    The "ohnoohnoohno" inner dialogue is distracting. I would shorter it to one italic "oh no!" Sometimes shorter actually carries more emphasis! This is even a good place to look for a unique turn of phrase. "Oh no" is pretty there something more interesting this child would say, something from her era perhaps?

    I have some concerns about the mention of Indians in the prologue.

    "Could it be an Indian? Lucy doesn’t know what Indians are, but Patty said they’d get her if she didn’t behave."

    This perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and unless it's going to be immediately corrected, I would question why it needs to be there.

    Once we get to the modern day section, Jemma is familiar and approachable, but not yet specific. How is her situation different than others? Who is she? I'm eager to get into some unique thoughts, details, and phrases that identify this character more concretely.

    Though I'm a bit confused by what exactly happens when we hear the scream at the end of the selection, I am interested to find out more about this story!

    My best,
    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor

    1. Thanks Melanie, these comments are really helpful! Point taken about the stereotype, as others have pointed that out. I stand by it being an historically accurate sentiment, but as it doesn't add anything here, I've cut it completely.

      This workshop is really opening my eyes to the importance of these first pages. I've been writing them off thinking we just get to expand as the next few pages unfold, but it's really hard to get across everything you want without anyone knowing the context of the whole book!

      Hopefully my revisions are on track :)

  8. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks so much for submitting your pages! I'm very intrigued by the start of this story and am eager to see where it'll take us.

    It's great to see the parallels you're drawing between the past and present -- the sibling relationships, the longing for connection, the fact that both Lucy and Jemma are out of their element. And the "winter breeze" at the end of Lucy's section and the "winter night air" at the beginning of Jemma's tie the two scenes together nicely.

    One question I have is whether Lucy's section is really a prologue. It seems like you'll be bouncing back and forth in time between the two parallel narratives throughout the novel -- if that's the case, I'd say the prologue is really chapter 1.

    I kind of wish Lucy's section ended on a little more of a bang than it does now. While the image of a grown man raising his fist to a little girl is striking (so to speak), I'd love to see that scene end with something more *fantastic* since you're writing a fantasy. Right now, it doesn't really have the feel of a fantasy to me. This is especially important when you consider Jemma's section because learning to ski is anything but fantastic. (Although the scream does leave us on a cliffhanger!)

    Bottom line here: I'd recommend trying to take us a little further into the story if you can. It should be doable if you cut down on some of the overwritten bits. One thought about doing this: Can you replace the mention of "Indian" with some allusion to the mythology that will be the basis for your fantasy? If it involves witches, for example, Lucy can worry about a witch getting her in the woods. Or she could worry about the string of mysterious disappearances that have happened recently (just making that up, of course, but you get the idea). That could plant the seed of the fantasy that will be revealed later and will get rid of the potentially insensitive mention of Native Americans.

    Once you give the reader a better idea of the story's overall direction, I think you'll have a real page-turner. Looking forward to reading your next round!

    All best,
    1st 5 Pages Mentor

    1. Thanks Rob, great comments! I think I goofed by calling this a fantasy. It's not one in the sense of witches and wizards, so I'm going to re-genre it when I send back my revisions.

      I'm utterly unsure how to treat the beginning. Lucy is the catalyst for a later event and we get one more chapter from her POV. But Jemma is the MC. When I treated the prologue as chapter one, people said they were confused as to who the MC was supposed to be.

      Back to the revision board!