Sunday, November 19, 2017

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Sorensen Rev 2

Steph Sorensen
Young Adult Contemporary, with some magical realism


The Homestead Cooperative Community seems innocent enough, if a little weird. A band of hippie farmers living at a former children’s summer camp site, working together under the direction of their charismatic leader, Deacon, to escape the temptation and pain of modern life, and to become one with the land. The community offers refuge for those who wish to escape—junkies come to get clean for good, and victims to flee their abusers.

Colt’s family is there hiding from his violent father. But dark visions during Colt’s epileptic seizures suggest that Deacon may not truly be the benevolent figure that his followers see.

Peach, fifth of Deacon’s seven wives, thought she loved the community. Though only sixteen, she’s considered an adult, ready to find her own path. If she can only figure out where it’s supposed to lead.

Alara, shut down by grief over her mother’s death, was dragged in with a bag over her head.

Together they must uncover the dangerous secrets hidden by Deacon and his flock, and whether this supposedly virtuous community is really a cult, being shepherded toward destruction.



The day Colt died started off the same as the rest, muggy and still. Mom said she was just running out for a refill cartridge of her raspberry vape drops. But he knew she’d be gone an hour at least, doing whatever she was actually doing and not saying. He was left in charge of his little brother, as usual. Being six years older basically made him the fallback parent.

“Can we swim?” JoJo pleaded, giving Colt the sad little boy eyes, although at nearly ten he was just about too old for them to work anymore.

“You heard Mom,” Colt answered blandly, picking bald spots in the Astroturf flooring of the sunroom and waiting for a breeze to blow through, but it didn’t come. “We’re not supposed to be here, so we can’t let anybody see us hanging around.”

JoJo stuck out his lower lip. He’d thrown his swim trunks on as soon as Mom had left, and his round kneecaps jutted like lollipops on his skinny stick legs. “They won’t know we’re staying here just because we’re swimming. We could sneak over to the beach through the trees down the road a little.”

Colt knew the answer was supposed to be no. Summer just had that pull though. Or the lake did, anyway. Colt guessed it was the combination of the two. He could just see the flicker of the sun off the lake through all the trees like it was sending signals. Come on boys, it would whisper in its watery voice made of light. Come swim.

They’d been at the little lake cottage more than a month without swimming once, and that was just wrong. Once might be okay, if they made it quick. Colt had outgrown his swimsuit last year and Mom hadn’t gotten him a new one. She hadn’t gotten him a new anything, not in a long time. He gritted his teeth. His cutoffs would do fine.

“Let’s go,” he said, grinning at JoJo’s yip of joy.

The first splash in was a shock and Colt made a sound, like oh! Like his body was remembering cold after so much heat. And then under, and the muffled crunching that splashes make in underwater ears. The chill was a shock that made his whole body clench up, but the release that came after was worth it. Colt was never one to wade in. The lake was fed by underwater springs so it stayed cold all summer. Except the surface, black water heated by the sun.

Colt had only just broken back through the warmed skin of the water when he felt it coming on, and tried to head back toward the shoreline. The fear followed fast, and he thought this was what it would feel like if he’d just spotted a shark in the water. But it was only a lake.

He wasn’t too far out, his toes could just touch the muck on the bottom. He made it a few strides closer and then his muscles tensed. In that last second he could accomplish a lot, even if he couldn’t really do much of anything about it. Colt curled his tongue back behind his teeth, that was habit by then. And he tried to spot JoJo while his eyeballs slid up inside his skull. He couldn’t catch sight of his brother, but he saw some splashing off the side, and that would have to do. The last thing he felt was the coolness of water on the back of his neck as he slipped under, and the tight choke of fear.

It always started with a feeling of falling. A lot of the time he was actually falling, although if he got the feeling early enough he had time to lie down, and that saved some bruises later on. After that he just wasn’t there. He’d been told how it looked from the outside though. His whole body tensed up, his back arched sickly, he shook and drooled and sometimes moaned a little.

At least, up until that day that’s how it was. But he’d never seized up in the water before. He’d never died during one before. Colt’s best guess was that the drowning’s what did it, switched something on inside him that he wasn’t supposed to be able to see.

It was like watching a slide show in school. Murky, dirty images flickering past, some holding, others just a flash and then gone. A field of brown and yellow grass. A falling-down wooden barn. Mom prone on a sofa and a man leaning over her, hands reaching for her throat. And then a girl. She was blurry and yellow-green and made him feel like she was reeling him in by a hook through his chest. And he didn’t know whether it was bad or good.

And that was it. When he came back around it was with a screeching headache in a hospital bed.


Another August, another wedding. Peach was supposed to be with her sisters helping Celia ready herself mind body spirit but found she was more distracted by concerns of the flesh. Those concerns being in this instance the scratchy yellowing lace of her dress and the flesh referring uncouthly to her armpits. She had blossomed quite a bit since last summer’s wedding, and all that blossoming was causing her dress to pull uncomfortably across her chest and under her arms. Not to mention it was just too hot for a wedding day.

“Peach! Come away from there and help with this braid,” her sister Ella called, making little effort to hide her annoyance.

Peach sighed and forced herself to leave the window. The breeze was hot too but at least the air was moving over there. As she approached the tall, swiveling chair where Celia was being made ready, Peach made an attempt to smile at her new sister. Celia looked so young and small amid the lacy poofs at her shoulders and hips. Or where the hips would be in a few years.

Ella shoved an unraveling braid into Peach’s hands, eliciting a small yelp of pain from Celia. “It’s an in-between year for you, Peach. You should be helping the ceremonial girls get ready, not daydreaming in the corner. Why am I always stuck making sure nothing’s missed?”
Peach understood Ella’s irritation. It was her receiving year, after all. And Ella’s own hair was still tied messily atop her head. But she was only stuck managing the other sisters because she chose to. There was no real hierarchy between them, beyond helping meet the needs of the pregnant girls, and minding the small children.

Ella huffed off to sort out her hair situation, and Peach unwound Celia’s locks slowly, tugging on the small knots that had formed. She caught Celia’s dark eyes in the cloudy mirror. The girl looked frightened. Likely just overwhelmed. Peach remembered her own wedding day, just two summers earlier. She’d been so nervous she had thrown up. She looked down at the small brown stain on the bottom hem of her dress. That day it had been dragging on the floor, tripping her. Today it fell above her ankles.

“It’s easy to become overwhelmed,” Peach spoke softly above Celia’s ear while her hands worked on arranging the girl’s long waves. “Better to focus on the smaller things. Won’t it be nice to cut all this hair off tonight?”


  1. I really enjoyed the opening section, but was a little sucked out of the story with the Peach narrative. Alternating viewpoints can be great in a novel, but it usually helps to give us a bit more time to become acclimated to one before switching to another, and I don't know if we were able to spend enough time with Colt to get fully invested in him. Plus, right as something really interesting happens, we're off someplace else!

    The only thing I'll say about Colt's section is that you'd be amazed by how many "the day [character] died was just like any other" first lines I receive on a regular basis. I understand the thought process behind it, trying to establish some tension and stakes right away, but apparently it's such a great idea that a ton of authors are deciding to use it. So I

    I actually like the paragraph that starts "They’d been at the little lake cottage more than a month" as a first line/paragraph. There's a lot you can pepper in after that, as it puts us right in the scene, establishes that element of carefree youthfulness in which swimming is, in fact, the most important thing in the world. Maybe open with that, get them right in the water, let the seizure kick in, and the details surrounding that main action can be sprinkled in in between the main occurrence.

    - Alec

  2. Hi Steph!

    I loved reading your pitch and the clarity it gave to the pages we've been reading. The idea of a commune is great, considering events in recent history regarding them. I'm a little tripped up by the second sentence. There's a lot going on there. The last paragraph is really intriguing and it's great to learn these stakes after reading your pages. I can't wait to learn more. Would you considering adding something more specific regarding Deacon's "dangerous secrets" to give even more tension?

    I loved seeing your pages evolve over the last couple weeks. Peach's scene really comes alive for me and likewise, Colt's scene does a wonderful job in giving me a sense of the bleakness in which he lives.

    I wish you the best of luck with this book! I hope I can find it on the shelves some day soon!

  3. Hi Steph,
    Interesting pitch, and confirmed my suspicions from the earlier pages about the cult aspect. I didn't realize Colt and his family were actually at the same location though in the pages before, so their connection made more sense today. I didn't understand the line about Alara- it seemed disconnected from the rest.
    Colt and Peach continue to be clear, separate characters, each caught in their own circumstances. I wonder if she is the girl in his vision? If yes, it might be helpful to add a telling detail that we see again in Peach's section to tie the two together. At the end, I kept wondering how they would meet and if he would recognize her.
    Anyway- thanks for great feedback this month. Good luck as you revise your story. I've enjoyed reading it!

  4. Hi Steph!

    I've enjoyed seeing how your work has evolved in just a few short weeks. I know there's more to it than that - but I can see that you have a knack for revision, and that's important!

    I got the sense of a cult when reading the pages before, so your pitch is spot on in the first paragraph. I know there's only five pages here, but the name Alara in the pitch confused me. If this story is told from three POVs - mention that in the pitch, otherwise you are left scratching your head after you read the pages - and that's the last think you want a prospective agent or editor doing. Just a simple clarification that it's told in three POVs will help.

    I also agree with Alec here about your opening. The first line gives everything away up front. It might be more interesting to let that unfold in Colt's section - maybe write the scene where he wakes up in the hospital as opposed to just saying that's what he did. What if someone from his vision is at the hospital with him when he wakes up?

    If Colt and his family are already at the commune, that isn't clear. If this lake house is an escape from something - their father before they escape to the commune - you might consider putting that up front as well. That would also deepen Colt's character.

    This sounds like a complex, eerie story and I think you have a great start here - again, I'd be interested to see how the various POVs intersect. Good luck with it!

  5. Hi Steph,

    What a great revision! The pages read so clearly now, and I love all the details you’ve included. They make the characters and the setting feel very vivid, and I enjoyed immersing myself in the story.

    I did like that Colt felt afraid as the seizure kicked in this time—it helped anchor me in the moment better than in previous versions—but the mention of the shark was a bit distracting. Might want to consider cutting this in order to keep the focus on the seizures.

    I also enjoyed reading the pitch. It sounds like an intriguing concept for a dark and gritty story, but I did have a few questions as I read it. To me, a charismatic leader with seven child brides sounds like a pretty standard cult setup, so it was unclear why it wouldn’t be obvious to the community that this was something other than a hippie farm. I can see how Deacon might be able to shield outsiders from seeing this side of the commune, but is he hiding this from his followers as well? I think it was just the line of “whether this supposedly virtuous community is really a cult” that tripped me up—maybe it isn’t a question of whether this is a cult, but what they’re going to do about it.

    I would also have liked to have more of a feel from the pitch of what is driving Peach. She “thought she loved the community,” which hints at an interesting ambivalence, but the last two sentences of her paragraph are a bit vague. Does her perspective change after meeting Colt, perhaps? And I’m not sure you need the mention of Alara—to simplify things, might just specify that the story is told from three POVs (as Robin suggested).

    All that said, this still feels like a story that I haven’t seen elsewhere in YA…and with your unique voice and excellent writing, it’s bound to stand out. I’ve enjoyed watching it evolve, and wish you all the best with it!

  6. Hey Steph, I loved the revisions! Colt's perspective during his seizure is clearer to me now and the pacing is tighter!
    I was a little confused about Colt's whereabouts. I didn't know how his family could hide if they are actually on the same grounds and the commune. Maybe that would be something to clarify a bit more.
    The mention of Alara also threw me off just a little, mainly because the mention of her is so quick and her story doesn't seem as developed as Peach or Colt (of course, this could also just be because I know so much more about Colt and Peach from their POVs).
    Overall, it seems like a really intriguing story, good luck to you!

  7. Hi, Steph,

    Again, thank you so much for sharing this piece with us. I think it's wonderful. I have a couple of things to say about the pages in general, and then the pitch. Overall, I think you've done a great job with this. :)

    One thing about revisions is that sometimes when we delve into them, we lose a little bit of that voice that came out in the raw chapters so well. In this case I think a little of that is happening. I want to say two things: 1. Your last opening line, The day Colt died started out like any other (or something like that--I don't recall it exactly), I liked the tone it set originally. I also think, now that I know this story has MR elements, that saying "the day Colt died the first time started out like any other" (or however you worded it originally at the end of that opener paragraph), is killer and a keeper. Consider going back there to that original voice and line.

    2. Take more time with the Colt chapter. That great historical feel and setting in the voice was amazing. Let readers spend more time with him and JoJo in their setting and opening scene. Like a whole 7ish page chapter. Bring back some of that awesome scene-setting stuff you had in that version with some of this tighter stuff here and let your voice fill the pages again. Not that you totally lost it here; I just feel that in an effort to tighten and take all these crits into consideration, some of that voice stuff got cut.

    Don't worry about it. :) It happens to everyone. But I encourage you to read it over again. Read the other versions over again. And then take your time with these opening scenes so readers have time to connect with Colt. Then do the same for Peach's chapter so we have time with her as well. :)

    I hope this was encouraging! I think you're doing a lot of things right. :) Feel free to PM me on Twitter or FB if you have questions.

    Now for the pitch. I think the intro paragraph is good for giving us an idea of where the story takes place. I like your one-liners about why the characters are there. But then in the last paragraph--when we NEED to know the story stakes and what goes wrong and what will happen if the characters can't fix it, we get very vague.

    I would suggest spending less time with the set-up and more time stating what the main conflict is, how the characters will need to band together to overcome it, and what will happen if they can't.

    Best of luck! You have some great talent.