Sunday, November 19, 2017

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Fohlin Rev 2

Name: Michelle Fohlin

Title: Daughter of the Forest

Genre: Contemporary/Historical with fantasy elements

After her family makes a cross-country move, eleven-year-old Jemma can’t seem to navigate her new middle school. She wants to belong but is ostracized for reasons she can’t fathom. Even worse, her beloved twin brother Jaxon has replaced her with baseball. When she befriends a quirky classmate and a yarn bombing septuagenarian, life doesn't seem so bad anymore. But she still wants to get her brother back.

Searching for a way to do just that, she takes Jaxon to check out a crumbling stone wall in the woods behind their house. After toying with a rock that suspiciously looks like a key, they hurtle through time and land in Revolutionary Massachusetts. With only each other to rely on, they discover a cryptic note that gives the means to their return home—they must foil a plot to destroy the United States. But a smallpox outbreak might derail their plans and pirates deliver an ominous message: they must escape the King’s plot to sell Jemma into bondage or they’ll be stuck in this dimension forever.

If Jemma knew rekindling relationships would have so many complications, she might just have learned to like being alone!


April 1755, Princeton, Massachusetts

The forest is a funny thing: it’s full of peace and yet, if one is unlucky, menace lurks within it.

And Lucy Keyes was having a particularly unlucky day.

“Patty! Anna!” she called to her two older sisters, but neither girl responded. The elms on either side of the leaf littered path seemingly swallowed them up, leaving Lucy stranded. And the longer she wandered through the woods looking for them, the farther she got from her home.

She tugged at a plait the color of a fawn’s hide, fingers trembling. Maybe she shouldn’t have followed them out here after all, but they could have let her follow them to the lake. She would be ten soon enough; she could look after herself without spoiling their fun.

Lost and alone, she could do nothing to stop a fat tear from coloring a rock at her feet. Somewhere to her left, a single blue jay’s call cut through the still air. It sounded like it was laughing at her, so she grabbed the rock, wet from her tears, and threw it towards the bird. The stone didn’t get very far, but she was satisfied as wings flapped away.

But satisfaction soon gave way to fear. In every direction there were trees, no matter how many times she turned around. She couldn’t see the path she took to arrive there, the one that would lead her home. Nor was there a path to her sisters.

Oh pickles, she thought. What have I done? The milk she drank for breakfast sourly turned in the bottom of her stomach and she stuffed her first into her mouth in a poor attempt to settle her nerves.

“Patty? Anna?” The hesitation in her voice was clear, as she knew there wasn’t much hope they would hear her through all the trees. She paused to listen, but her voice disappeared in the evergreens. Not even her echo called back.

Great Jehosephat!

A twig snapped in the distance and she turned her head to see who—or what—it was. She couldn’t make out anything, but more sticks broke under someone’s—or something’s— feet. Oh I hope I hope I HOPE it’s not a bear. Her heart beat faster, in time with her shallow breaths.

“Mama?” Please let her have realized I snuck out. Please let her have found me.

A large figure came into view, but it wasn’t her mother and it wasn’t a bear. Instead, a neighbor, roughly twenty-years-old and hair flapping up like crow’s wings, stomped closer. She couldn’t remember his name, but knew he held a bitter grudge against her father. He thought Lucy’s family had stolen some of his land.

And he looked at her as though she was nothing but dead flies in his sugar pot.

Like he hated all children and wanted them all gone.

“Hello? Mister? Can you help me?” Lucy tried her sweetest girl-eye face on him as he came closer, breathing like an angry bull. Sweat wafted off his dingy brown overcoat.

Why wasn’t he answering her? She balled her fists, squeezed her nails into her palms. “Can you help me find my Mama and Papa?”

Still he said nothing. Run, Lucy, said the tiny voice in her head, but her feet were frozen to the earth, even though her legs shook.

“You did me wrong, Robert,” he finally said, and that made no sense, because Robert was her father. I’m Lucy, I don’t look like Papa at all. She tried to scream, but it was nothing but a bubble stuck in her throat.

He came closer still, and raised his fist as if about to strike.

Oh Jesus deliver me!

A thousand thoughts fluttered through her mind and as his arm lowered—oh so quickly!—toward her head, the last lingered like a winter breeze, chilly and forbidding.

Why did my sisters abandon me?


December, Present Day, Mount Wachusett, Princeton, Massachusetts

Jemma blew a plume of frosty breath. Good grief, Massachusetts was cold. It had been a year since her family moved here from Hawaii, and she hated it. Sure, the snow was cool the first time she had seen it, but nothing beat air perfumed by plumeria and year-round temps that hovered in the 80s. A lifetime in the tropics taught her that. Even though her lifetime was only eleven years.

But she had to remember she was here for Grandpa Ted.

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 newborn giraffe.

“Come on, Jem! You’ll be great!” he called after her, white powder spraying her goggles.

Yeah, great. Like a great big ol' lump of awful

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. Alright, you goofus. Easy peasy, hugs and squeezies. You got this.

With a final inhalation that chilled her lungs, she set off down the hill, praying that she wouldn’t end up rolling like a tumbleweed to the bottom. You got this. 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 little kids. Ever since they moved, and especially since they started middle school and he joined every team he could, she and Jaxon drifted farther apart.

She gained speed and her heart beat a persistent thrum in her chest. She was doing it! Her knees wobbled a couple times, but she hadn’t fallen yet. Ha! She loved winter! She was killing it!

And then a high feminine scream cut through the night, followed by a keening wail that sounded more wounded animal than human. Terror shot through her stomach, worse than her nerves on the first day of school and she lost all balance. Her imagination ran wild: did she just hear an attack? Did everyone see her fall? Geez, how horrible am I that I’m worried about myself goofing up over someone being hurt? She careened down the rest of the hill on her side, skis askew in the air, the unknown woman’s grief providing the soundtrack to her embarrassment and fear.

When she landed at the bottom of the run with an unsatisfying slide on her bum, she hustled to her feet—as quickly as she could, given the awkwardness of her skiis—and turned to face the hill. She saw nothing ominous, only fellow skiers. Nothing to identify the source of the scream, and no one in distress.

Her brother sidled up next to her and she startled at his laughter.

“That was brilliant Jem! It looked like you meant to go down that way!” He doubled over, holding his stomach, giggling like she was his personal comedian.

She ignored him. “Didn’t you hear that?”

“What? Other than you barreling down the hill?”


  1. Hi Michelle!
    I found the time travel aspect unexpected and intriguing! Lots of twists and turns ahead in the plot, it seems. I'm curious to see how Lucy's murder fits in with it all.
    "She wants to belong but is ostracized for reasons she can’t fathom." I wonder if there's a more kid-friendly way you can phrase this. I know the pitch letter isn't written in the voice of your characters, but you have such a great way of capturing a genuine youthful tone in your pages, I think your pitch would benefit from reflecting some of that.
    It seems like the majority of the book's plot involves the back in time adventures, rather than Jemma being lonely at her new school, meeting new friends, etc. If that is the case, I'd trim the opening paragraph of your pitch to reflect that. I'd think you'd only need a sentence or two covering the idea that Jemma and Jaxon have grown apart and she's lonely. Bringing in the quirky friend and septuagenarian are nice details, but it isn't clear what role they have to play in the overall arc of the book.
    "But a smallpox outbreak might derail their plans and pirates deliver an ominous message: they must escape the King’s plot to sell Jemma into bondage or they’ll be stuck in this dimension forever." There's a whole lot unloaded in this sentence, and it's exciting stuff. Can you break it up a bit to give the various plot points more room to breathe? As it is, it felt a little confusing since it was just a lot at once.
    I'd also be interested in maybe 1-2 sentences about how Jemma and Jaxon's strained relationship makes solving the problems they encounter in the past more challenging.
    I LOVE your two new opening lines! The tone is great, the content is intriguing, really great stuff.
    I feel like your third paragraph does a nice job of illustrating how lost she is and how she got that way in a fluid way.
    The description of the skiing accident was totally clear this time and spooky!
    It's been great seeing your pages evolve. All the best going forward with this book and everything else!

    1. Thanks so much Steph! These are really helpful comments for my pitch. I'm telling you, I've changed it up so many times over the last few months, I think I'm regressing to something awful :)

  2. The biggest strength of these pages could also end up being a hindrance to the manuscript, depending on what happens next: we have two very distinct, very exciting bits of action happening quite quickly. My guess is that, since the first part is set up as a prologue, we aren't going to be hearing too much about 1755 until later in the book where the time travel actually takes place, and thus the opening scene serves as a nice setup to events that we'll be revisiting later. If that is the case, though, I can't help but wonder if you've done yourself a disservice by creating a tense, fast-paced scene that we're then going to be quite removed from by the time it actually comes back into play.

    Is there a way to weave the prologue into the actual story, perhaps as something that Jemma and Jaxon witness through the porthole into the past before they actually get sucked through? I'm not sure whether or not that would work for the overarching narrative structure, but one of the things about prologues like this one is they can often turn into a throwaway scene, despite their poise and polish, because the lead-up to the part of the book where the prologue once again becomes relevant. So in this case, you might want to go back and see if you can make this skiing accident, which is tense enough on its own, the first pages we read, and figure out a way to incorporate anything we need to know into the past as part of that A plot. Even if this book bounces back and forth between past and present pretty regularly, finding ways to interweave the two time periods until their inevitable collision will make it seem much less like there are two separate stories going on and more like one cohesive one.

    - Alec

    1. Thanks so much Alec! You've given me some great things to think about as to how I can make a better transition between the two eras.

  3. Michelle,
    It was great to read your pitch and see how these two worlds collide. It promises quite a few twists and conflicts, but I did have a couple of questions about details-- what year do they land back in time? If it is before 1776, it wouldn't be called the United States yet, right? Also, the King wouldn't be in MA, especially around the revolution and would he really be concerned with selling a girl with the potential loss of land and resources and power? (This might be something you address in the manuscript, but I wondered).
    Like Steph, I loved the two new opening lines-- set such a great tone for Lucy's section. I saw that you clarified her age too, but she still feels younger than ten for some reason-- maybe her confusion that the man thinks she's her father? Not sure.
    Jemma and Jaxon's section was tighter, and my favorite part was at the end when he's laughing at her descent-- it felt natural and apropos for siblings of that age to react that way to each other.
    Have enjoyed the workshop with you-- thanks for all your feedback. Best wishes as you continue to revise the manuscript!

  4. Thanks Sue! Helpful points about the query and what I can clarify. You're right in that it makes sense in the MS itself, but it might be weird in the pitch. As far as Lucy goes, I tested out 10 here. In reality she's 5 when she disappears, which makes her a little young for middle grade, but as she's not the main character, I'm hoping I can get away with it.

  5. Hi Michelle,

    It's been such a pleasure reading your pages and watching how they've evolved in this short span of time. I continue to enjoy your descriptive prose!

    My concern regarding your pitch is that you never mention the character you open up your novel with, so the prologue seems out of place. I never would have guessed time travel would be an element in this story from reading the first five pages. That's the exciting part - how far into the novel will this happen? I would think you'd want to get to that part as soon as you could. So just keep that in mind when revising. I love the modern setting with Jem and Jaxon so much - I get a much better sense of their sibling relationship than before and love the idea of them traveling through time and working together to save the country!

    When I first read the pages - I assumed that we'd be revisiting Lucy as a character - if that's not the case, you might think about whether having the prologue is necessary. If you do choose to keep it - I'm not sure your first line is the best way to open it. It sounds too "and now I'm going to lay some wisdom on you" - and all it does, at least for me, is give too much away. I know something bad is going to happen. As a reader, I'd rather discover that along the way. (and you do a really nice job of setting up that tension and reveal, so you don't need to forecast it in the first line)

    This sounds like an amazing story. Good luck!

  6. Thanks so much for your comments throughout Robin! This has given me some great ideas to make everything flow so much better :)

  7. Hi Michelle,

    Once again, I really enjoyed reading your pages! You’ve made some great revisions here. As usual, I especially loved Jemma’s section and found the part about the scream much clearer, and the fact that no one else seemed to hear it was all the more intriguing. Lucy’s section was better, too, though I agree that you might want to consider making it shorter or removing it altogether (if that works for the story).

    As for the pitch, I loved the description of the “yarn bombing septuagenarian.” But, based on where the story’s headed, I’m not sure her present-day troubles need quite as much space. It would probably be better to focus more on the events in the second paragraph, because I got a little lost there. Is the king’s plot different than the one they have to foil? I’m guessing they’re two different things, but the repeated word “plot” suggested they were the same.

    This is shaping up to be a really fun and intriguing story, and it’s been a pleasure to read each week. Best of luck with it!

  8. Hi Michelle, I love the final revisions and it is so interesting to hear the pitch and know where the story is going! I agree with above commenters, that it would be helpful to mention Lucy in your pitch. Because she is in the prologue, I assumed Jemma would find some sort of connection to her throughout the novel. From your pitch, it isn't made clear that Lucy resurfaces again, I would try and make a better connection between Lucy and Jemma.

    Great job, it seems like a fascinating story!

  9. Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for sharing your revision with us today. First, your query has got a lot of great stuff going on! We've got a clear delineation of the two main characters, their goals, and their conflict. It's wonderful to see that focus.

    The first area I would focus on for edits is the opening lines:

    "can’t seem to navigate her new middle school. She wants to belong but is ostracized for reasons she can’t fathom."

    Can't seem and can't fathom are vague and don't point to specific problems. What's her specific problem fitting in? Help us see her, or else leave this layer out of the query. Ordinary problems with fitting in aren't unique enough to grab attention here, and could encourage an agent to stop reading.

    I would also cut this last line:
    "If Jemma knew rekindling relationships would have so many complications, she might just have learned to like being alone!"

    It introduces a strange flippant tone that destroys the suspense and stakes that you build up in the rest of the query.

    Regarding your opening pages, I am still struggling to see how this prologue is the right place to start the story. Based on your query, I expect to be in Jemma's POV right away. Any delay makes me feel like I'm waiting for the story to begin. I would seriously reconsider this opening. If the reader cannot tell why the story needs to start here, then either the approach to the scene must change or the scene must change.

    Beyond that, Lucy's mannerims still indicate a much younger child than 10--her language (pickles), hr fist in her mouth, her simple expression of fear without layers of anger or annoyance...all of these point to a much younger child. The scene itself is also challenging to follow because we are exposed to so many narrative questions at once, with very few if any answers. That can be disorienting for the reader.

    Meanwhile, your opening scene with Jemma is wonderful! The tone, voice, and narrative question in these opening lines is perfect.

    Moving forward, I would strongly suggest you open with Jemma and let us get settled in her world before introducing the alternate timeline. Once the reader has a foothold, you can start to layer narrative questions in a way that is exciting rather than overwhelming.

    You have a lot of creative ideas here. Best of luck to you!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor

    "Jemma blew a plume of frosty breath. Good grief, Massachusetts was cold. It had been a year since her family moved here from Hawaii, and she hated it. "

  10. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks again for all the work you put into this workshop. It really shows! I think the prologue feels much tighter now and the fact you cut some material from that lets you take Jemma's story a bit further.

    That being said, I still have concerns with the structure of the story. That prologue is still problematic to me. Even more so now that I see a pitch which sets me up to expect Jemma's story right up front. As Alec said, it makes Lucy's story feel like a throwaway.

    As for the pitch itself, I like the general direction of your concept, but I feel like it may not be coming through as clearly as it could. Especially at the end. When I read this: "But a smallpox outbreak might derail their plans and pirates deliver an ominous message: they must escape the King’s plot to sell Jemma into bondage or they’ll be stuck in this dimension forever." it leaves me scratching my head a bit. Between smallpox and the king and pirates and a plot to destroy the United States and another to sell Jemma into bondage, it's just so many major plot points stuffed into one or two sentences. It just leaves me asking too many questions.

    Again, I think you have the makings of a great story here. But part of the challenge is to make sure you find a way in a query and a handful of sample pages to make an agent truly fall in love with it.

    Best of luck!
    Rob, 1st 5 Pages mentor