Sunday, April 15, 2018

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Contois Rev 1

Name: Hannah Contois
Genre: YA Magical Realism

The halls of Stillwater High, stale with teenage angst and an overabundance of cologne and dry shampoo, are alive with songs from souls brimming with Wednesday anticipation. Each song is so vivacious and clear that it’s sad I’m the only one that seems able to hear them.

Music is both my gift and curse, which is why I’m having to fight the intense urge to shred the smudged sheet of music clutched in my hand the entire walk to the cafeteria. Writing this piece should be a cakewalk! Music is easy for me. I can listen to a song once and replay it nearly perfectly. I can compose original pieces using what emotions I glean in the sounds of rain on a rooftop, or from the wind through my wheezing bedroom window. A playground full of children is an entire orchestra piece that I have currently stuffed in my messenger bag. I’ve spent hours creating music to capture the array of emotion that floods these halls, but my damn audition piece, the one revealing my very soul, stubbornly refuses to show me how to finish it! Instead, it has been weeks since I added a single new note, and the deadline for my music school application is the demon riding my shadow wherever I go.

I need them to like me! I need them to see inside me, hear my soul as it cries out for a better future, for a way to escape. My only future rides on getting a full ride. Helena certainly won’t be paying for me to go anywhere, let alone to a 'snobby' music school.

A cluster of students in front of the cafeteria door split apart without acknowledging me as I stomp towards them already trying to find a familiar beanie wearer in the crowd of high schoolers eating lunch. I weave around the chairs and discarded backpacks to where I know Mari is waiting.

I’m not rich in the way of friends since ‘The Incident’ where, back in the days of sophomore naivety I had a boyfriend and social status, I dumped the King of Stillwater High. That’s right, I’d been normal and popular at one point, despite my tendency to carry my violin, Darcy, around like a safety blanket. Post-Incident, I was instantly blacklisted. All my ‘friends’ disappeared like smoke caught in JJ’s wake. All except for Marigold Bibeau, my sassy emo bestie currently staring at the Jock Joint table and their fawning cheerleaders.

I throw myself into a chair at our table, rocking it, but take more care in depositing Darcy at my feet. “I’ve determined that not only am I going to die alone in Helena the Heinous’s attic,” I slap the half empty pages of my audition piece onto the table, my fingers wrinkling the edges. “I’m going to die there only after years of working at the laundromat, marrying out of lonely desperation, popping out a couple of angry children, and when my husband leaves me for the hot local pool-boy, I’ll be suffocated to death by my forty-two cats.”

Mari doesn’t even blink at my declaration. “You’re allergic to cats, Ellena. Why would you have forty-two of them?” Her expression never shifts from her perfectly crafted expression of nothingness, her smooth, pale skin and dark eyes reminding me of a geisha. Her eyes flick away from the jocks to my papers and assess the angry scribbles, like bruises, on the sheet music. “Music is going well, I take it.” She offers me her small baggie of carrot sticks.

I snag one, snapping it between my teeth. “It’s been weeks. Weeks!” I wail, feeling eyes on the back of my head, like a spider’s web caught in my hair. “And Mr. Michals wants to start recording soon.” I collapse my forehead onto the pages and send up a belated prayer that the ink from study hall is dry and isn’t going to mark my face. “I’m Sisyphus pushing his stupid rock up the hill for an eternity.”

She pats the back of my head. “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”

“No!” I snap defensively, but sit up and stare at her, wide-eyed and a touch manic. “You know that if I don’t absolutely kill this audition, I can kiss my future goodbye.”

“Most action you’ll have had in years,” she quips.

I stab a carrot in her direction. “First of all, shut up. Second of all, if I don’t get that scholarship, how the hell am I supposed to get out of here?”

She sighs in exasperation. “This is a thoroughly beaten dead horse. My parents have a trust or whatever. I’m sure they would help you. It’ll be a great tax write-off.”

I pause mid-chew and give her a hard stare. “I’m not taking money from you, or your parents. I will make my own way or die in a basement from trying. I’ve been doing nothing but writing the stupid thing in any spare minute I have hoping for something to break through my writer’s constipation.”

“Is that why you are late for lunch?” She glances over her shoulder at the clock on the wall. “Very late. Here,” she tosses the rest of the carrots at me. “Eat and walk.”

The bell overhead rings as I catch them. “I’ll get you a gold star for your act of kindness for the day.”

“I like gold stars.” Mari stands, adjusting her overly large sweatshirt and t-shirt that says ‘Who needs a heart when you can have donuts?’ I snort. She has the best sarcastic clothes and they match perfectly with her pitch black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes.

“Great, I’ll steal some from Mr. Michals’ office for you.”

She starts leading us out of the cafeteria. “Like that tight-ass would have gold stars. He wouldn’t know a gold star if someone stuck one to his forehead.” Mari turns to me, stuffing her free hand into her sweatshirt pocket. “Ready for Ms. Ora’s class?”

We both have Ms. Ora for one of our elective classes - Classical Mythology. She’s a lot on the eccentric side with at least three different personalities, one of which speaks in a strange language when she doesn’t think we are paying attention. All last class, she’d randomly burst into sobbing fits, crying into a roll of toilet paper. Her sadness had been a great symphony of tears and pain, with peals of string instruments and soft hiccups of the piano to create an emotional rollercoaster that she and I had been trapped on. I’d left class emotionally drained and as sick at heart as she was. “Not even a little. Mr. Michals gave me the key for the studio room. Maybe I’ll ditch and work there instead.”

“Must be nice to have a teacher who has the hots for you.” She grunts when I backhand her across the arm, hard. “What was that for?”

“You know he’s like the father I never had.” I sigh and catch her arm, making her stop in the hallway and causing a traffic jam around us. “You don’t get how important this is. You could get into any school you want. Yale and Princeton have been begging for you since before you got out of diapers.”

She twists the end of a braided pigtail around her finger and adopts an air-headed, open-mouthed gape. “Gag me, right?”

I shake my head and resume walking. “Getting out of New Hampshire and going to music school is my only future.”


  1. Such great edits. I think this is really smoothed out and a much better entry. I like that it's about her music. You're metaphors are incredible.

    One concern I have is possibly giving too much information in this first bit. For example:
    I’m not rich in the way of friends since ‘The Incident’ where, back in the days of sophomore naivety I had a boyfriend and social status, I dumped the King of Stillwater High. That’s right, I’d been normal and popular at one point, despite my tendency to carry my violin, Darcy, around like a safety blanket. Post-Incident, I was instantly blacklisted. All my ‘friends’ disappeared like smoke caught in JJ’s wake. All except for Marigold Bibeau, my sassy emo bestie currently staring at the Jock Joint table and their fawning cheerleaders.

    this paragraph above I think says too much. I was excited about an incident, but I was kinda hoping you didn't just tell us what it is, yet. Let me know there's an incident, but leave me to wonder about it. give a sense of intrigue and then tell us a bit later when it becomes an issue.
    Just a thought.
    And I would love to know what is really going to happen to her if she doesn't get the music scholarship. but I love the way you describe her music at the beginning. Well done.

  2. Great job keeping the focus on her music and her need of a scholarship. The interaction between characters is great. My favorite line is: "You're allergic to cats, Ellena. Why would ..." Good way to get her name out there, too.

    I struggle with this myself, but I think you should start with the action in the cafeteria. Sprinkle some of the stuff we need to know later and throughout. Emphasizing it is an elite music school besides being too expensive ups the stakes. She wants this specific school because ...

    Instead of telling us she hears noise as music, is there a way to show us? I like the line that she's the only one who can hear it, but show us more examples instead of telling them to us in the beginning.

    We're all trying to figure this writing thing out, so I hope I'm giving you correct advice : )

    Much improved! You have great characters and believable YA voice going for you.

  3. Wow. I love this! Even in the first paragraph I feel like I’m getting a grid for who she is and what she cares about.
    I think by the time we get to the paragraph about “the incident” I’m ready for a break in the description – maybe introduce Mari at that point since you just mentioned her? Just to break up the straight descriptive paragraphs. Though, honestly, your descriptions are amazing! I lol’d at “writer constipation” haha!
    I love love love the changes you’ve made with describing how Ellena perceives the emotions around her – thinking of Ms. Ora, who was mentioned in the previous draft, but now her emotions are compared to music and it’s so beautiful!
    Great revision, I think you’ve given a great picture of the characters and what Ellena’s stakes are!

    Also, side note: I’ve recently started reading STARFISH by Akemi Dawn Bowman, and this reminds me so much of that! Maybe a good comp title option?

  4. I love starting with the music SO much better! I feel now how important music is to the Ellena (the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs could be tightened). This also gives her frustration when she finds Mari a better motivation. Mari's response about the cats is beautiful.

    I'm still missing the reason Ellena wants so badly to escape her town. I like the bit about Helena not being willing to pay for a snobby music school. This shows us what Helena (her guardian, I assume?) is like and why Ellena needs a scholarship. What happens if she doesn't get this scholarship specifically?

    "...alive with songs" – it took me a moment to realize this is how Ellena hears the noise around her, not the other kids singing.

    Some questions I have: If music normally comes so easy to Ellena, what is blocking her with her audition piece? When is the audition and why can't she use any of the other pieces she's written? Why wouldn't she take help from her best friend's parents? If getting out is so important, what prevents her from swallowing her pride here?

    You've done a great job simplifying these pages, and I think they read much cleaner now. Nice work!

    Note: Ellena and Helena are very similar names. Something to think about. ☺

  5. A few things:
    -I find the first sentence a little too long and complex (it has 3 instances of "with" in one line). Try to shorten this so it's punchier. First lines are sometimes the only thing people read so you want it to grab your potential readers. You do this again with "A cluster of students in front of the cafeteria door split apart without acknowledging me as I stomp towards them already trying to find a familiar beanie wearer in the crowd of high schoolers eating lunch." Your sentences shouldn't be so long and complex that readers have to read them twice to figure out what they're saying. This is especially true when the sentences involve multiple people or actions. Readers are trying to see what you're describing and they will get whiplash if you're covering too much.
    -Your 2nd two paragraphs are entirely telling (so is most of the one starting with "We both have..."). You need to find a way to show this information in her reactions or speech which she actually does in the conversation with Mari. I would suggest you remove everything you're already telling or showing in that conversation and then weave the rest (if essential) elsewhere.
    -You're giving an action to her friend's eyes here, not her: "Her eyes flick away..."
    -You're using way too many exclamation marks. These should be only used when your character is yelling.
    -I would change the part where she says "when my husband leaves me for the hot local pool-boy." In this context, you're making it sound like having a bisexual or gay husband is something that only happens to a pathetic loser with 45 cats.


    1. Hi Holly,

      Thank you for your suggestions. I will work on fixing the telling paragraphs. I thought I had managed to fix all the body part actions in this draft but missed some. I will also work on fixing the comment about the cats. I by no means meant it the way that it seems to be reading.

      Thanks again for your feedback,

  6. Hannah,

    I’m impressed. Really. You’ve taken the comments to heart and given us a much different — and much stronger — opening. Kudos to you! I have a much better sense of Hannah’s uniqueness — and more importantly, you’re making me care about her.

    This is a really great start, but I think there is still room for improvement.

    The first sentence is a mouthful! As our first impression of this story, it’s too much to take in. I think the first several paragraphs could use some trimming back. Your ideas are complex enough already here — make them as clear as possible by paring back on the language.

    There’s too much exposition in the first five paragraphs. Can you break this up more by interspersing dialogue and action? Even shorter paragraphs would help.

    You certainly don’t need to give us the backstory of The Incident right away. This can come much later, either in the chapter of even in the story. It’s not necessary in understanding the scene at this moment.

    The dialogue between the two girls often sounds too formal. Too long sentences, too big words. You might have this as part of her personality, and that’s great. But watch the flow so that it doesn’t sound forced.

    I’m not thrilled with her best friend’s comparison to a geisha. What does this mean, anyway? That she’s Asian? Please reconsider this. Ditto Holly’s comment about the pool boy.

    This is really funny:
    “Most action you’ll have had in years,” she quips.

    It seems a little bizarre that the best friend is offering her parents to pay for her friend’s education? Could you explain this a little more?

    Finally, I’m more interested in the girls than their teachers or the classes they’re taking, especially so early in the book. Consider where you’re choosing to spend your page time and if this is the best way to draw in a reader...

    Great job, overall!! You’re making huge strides!

  7. (Sorry to be late!) Week #2
    I LOVED your previous opening so much and was sorry to see that you changed it. I have done this myself, rounded the edges off, so to speak. But you know best, maybe that hilarious opening was really a darling that had to go. I felt that the snarky tone set up an expectation for what was to come. It was so different it made me want to keep reading (essentially, you have ONE JOB. Make me keep reading.) You have replaced the snark with THE INCIDENT. And that is intriguing, inquiring minds and all that… also love the gold stars and the hints about Ms. Ora. Keep going, I feel like you’re on to something here.