Sunday, April 22, 2018

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Contois Rev 2

Name: Hannah Contois
Genre: YA Magical Realism

17-year old Ellena wholeheartedly believes that she has only one future: get into music school. She also believes The Fates are plotting to keep her from doing exactly that. There is Helena the Heinous, the world’s worst foster mother. Then, the world’s worst composer’s constipation. Finally, Ares, the world’s worst Greek God trapped in her hometown.

Ellena has a gift. She can play the music that lives in everyone and everything. When she uses her gift to complete what she thinks is an ordinary high school assignment, Ares is accidentally summoned and trapped in her hometown.  With him threatening not only her life, but her carefully planned future, Ellena has to send him back to Olympus before she misses audition deadlines, or dies at the end of his spear.

Ellena manages - barely - to get help from the other Greek gods who have made new lives for themselves in the modern world. She discovers that the only way to return Ares is by completing a quest from the past that once ended in tragedy. The journey will test her gift, what Ellena knows about herself, and will force her to examine who she is and what she really wants in life.

Stillwater High, stale with teenage angst and an overabundance of cologne and dry shampoo, pulses with sound. The murmur of students melds into a song so vivacious and alive, it’s a shame I’m the only one who hears it. My feet set the beat while my mind takes a small sound bite from every soul, assembling and reassembling them like puzzle pieces of a grand symphony puzzle. Though I’m missing the bright bobble of a piano from my tiny emo bestie, who - fingers crossed - should be waiting for me at our lunch table.

Frustration eats away at me like termites through a house made of popsicle sticks. Writing this audition piece should be a cakewalk, but it’s turning into a nightmare to finish. Such a nightmare that I’m on the brink of shredding it into confetti and feeding it to the lab rats fifth period.

I throw myself into my chair next to Mari, who eyes the Jock Joint table and their fawning cheerleaders like they are a science experiment gone wrong. “That’s it," I declare. "I’m going to die here, stuck in Helena the Heinous’s attic.” I slap the half empty pages of my audition piece onto the table, my fingers wrinkling the edges, while setting Darcy, my violin, more carefully at my feet. “The Fates are making sure that I will never finish this piece in time. I’m bound to live a pointless life, never playing music again and watching as my soul withers away. I will float through my silent life, until one day I’m smothered to death by my forty-two cats.” I huff hard enough my bangs that Mari cut herself fluff off my forehead.

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, a talent she'd perfected under the tutelage of her mother. Her eyes flick to my papers, assessing 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. “I’m Sisyphus pushing his stupid rock up the hill for an eternity.” I roll my forehead across the pages sending up a belated prayer that the ink is dry. “If I don’t get in, I will never leave. If I never leave, the music will wither up inside me. Who will I be then, Mari?”

“The same violin-obsessed freak you’ve always been, just less famous.” 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. “I’m not in it for the fame. It’s something I have to do. Music has been the only thing that has been mine. It’s what keeps me going. I should just kiss my future goodbye.”

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

I stab a carrot in her direction. “First, shut up. Second, what good is having a musical gift if I can’t share it?” Though I don’t really know if it is a gift or curse. Where the rest the world hears noise - the honking of a car, a woman crying at a bus stop - I hear emotions; music. Rain on my rooftop is a lonely cello crying to return to the sky. The wind through my wheezing bedroom window is an inquisitive piano, seeking an ear to keep awake and spill the secrets of the shadows into. A playground of children is an entire orchestra piece currently stuffed in my bag I wrote two weeks ago.

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. “You’re parents would do no such thing. They are all for academics - science supporters and mathematicians - not the arts. They think my dream is as silly as Helena does.” I pop the rest of the carrot in my mouth. “I’ve been doing nothing but writing the stupid thing in every spare minute I have, wishing on every stupid star that something will happen to break through my writer’s constipation. Still nothing.”

“Don’t strain too hard or you’ll hurt yourself. 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, power plowing her five foot frame through the crowd. “He wouldn’t know a gold star if someone stuck one to his forehead.” Mari stuffs her hand into her sweatshirt pocket. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just pick something else that you’ve written? What about the ones all over your wall? Some aren’t even half bad.”

I give her the side eye. “Thanks,” I say drolly. “But I need more than ‘not half bad.' I need soul baring greatness. I can’t get a full ride with ‘not half bad.’” I sigh. “You don’t get it. 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. “Music school is my only option. Music is-.”

“I know, I know,” she interrupts, staring at the ceiling and holding a hand high as though reciting Shakespeare. “Your destiny. Like it was written in the stars.”

I roll my eyes. “You think I’m being ridiculous.”

“No,” she shakes her head slowly, drawing out the word like warm taffy. “I know you’re being ridiculous.  You aren’t alone. We can figure it out together.”

I tug her close, my heart in my throat. Mari is the best of friends; viciously loyal and genuinely concerned despite her cool outward appearance. “Thanks, Mari.”

She changes the subject, linking her arm in mine. “Ready for Ms. Ora’s class?”

I wince. Ms. Ora is 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, weeping into a roll of toilet paper because of a breakup she was - or wasn’t - getting over. Her sadness had been a great symphony of pain, with peals of string instruments and soft hiccups of the piano to create an emotional rollercoaster that only she and I had been trapped on. “Not even a little. Mr. Michals gave me the key for the studio. Maybe I’ll ditch and write instead.”


  1. Pages:

    I LOVE the new first paragraph. I can feel Ellena is a musician without you saying it. This is a great way to intro her character, and I love how you segue into the best friend. Awesome job!

    "feeding it to the lab rats," "like they are a science experiment gone wrong" - Some great voice here!

    The bit about the parents makes more sense. I understand now why the parents paying for Ellena's school isn't an option. Mari is loyal though and I love her for that.

    I love how you're sprinkling in the references to Greek myths. Now that I've read the pitch, I see how that ties in.

    I'm still missing why THIS audition is her only way out (instead of applying to other music schools, for example). For me, I think that's the one piece that could be strengthened so I understand why this audition is make or break. But of course if it has to be this audition, that definitely raises the stakes! Why would failing this audition mean she could never play music again?

    Repetition: You have two references to Ellena and her music withering up.

    I think you've done a great job with this opening. It feels much stronger than the original version.


    I love "...before she misses audition deadlines, or dies at the end of his spear." This gives me a sense of the stakes. I think I need just a little more here about why the audition is so important (i.e. what happens if she fails it?) for the stakes to really hit home. Personally, I like the start of the second paragraph better than the first, as starting with her gift shows us what's unique about Ellena.

    Repetition: You say "trapped in her hometown" twice.

    The end of the pitch feels vague. Is there a choice Ellena will have to make between her music and something else? Could you give us a hint about the quest she'll have to complete?

    Small note: I don't see (yet) from the pitch or pages how the title ties in. That may not be a big deal, but the title definitely didn't lead me to expect the Greek mythology elements.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments and suggestions - they’ve helped me make big strides! I’ll work on the duplicated parts. I read and reread so many times I didn’t even see them... opps!

      I’ll give away the title - This whole book has elements of Greek myths and monsters so I took the myth of Apollo’s lyre and made it a she instead. Ellena is the reincarnation of Lyra, the lyre, who couldn’t let go that she had purposefully failed Orpheus while he was trying to bring his wife back from the Underworld but was given a constellation in her name. The title is a small reference to her being a fallen star andher wishes that seem to go unanswered. It’s, of course, something in the works too ☺️

      Thanks again for all your help! Back to the editing cave!

  2. I love how you've made her gift clearer and things more concise. Beautiful opening. It feels musical. However, "like puzzle pieces of a grand symphony puzzle" doesn't work for me. Maybe just "like notes in a grand symphony. Especially since you have another simile first thing next paragraph.

    The characters are great - love their interaction. Great lines. I'm glad you kept my favorite: allergic to cats ...

    It moves along much more quickly and with focus - great job! I'm torn on whether I need a greater consequence for her not getting a scholarship. To this age group it may seem like life or death, and I'm intrigued enough by the pitch that I'd probably buy it and keep reading.

    I'm no expert, but there are a few things I'd change (you may have just been in a hurry : ). 1. remove "defensively" 2. Put a period after "No." and capitalize "She" in “No,” she shakes... 3. Don't tell us "She changes the subject." We can read she does : ) 4. Also her answer to the question after this is so late in coming I forgot the question and had to go back.

    In this paragraph: “Don’t strain too hard or you’ll hurt yourself. 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.”
    I think it should be "were late" and again a period after "Here." And capitalize "She ..." (Just wanting to help : )

    About the pitch: I'd move the first paragraph elsewhere or disburse it within the other paragraphs. "dies at the end of a spear" is a great stake! Great premise. I agree with Jim that the ending is a bit vague. A choice might be nice. It sounds very intriguing and promising. Well done!

  3. Great improvements!
    I love reading the pitch and realizing this is pulling in Greek mythology- which I am a huge fan of! I did wonder what you meant by "Then, the world’s worst composer’s constipation." Is that a Fate or a joke? I don't really think you need to talk about the fate's in your pitch. Just Ares.

    I love this line-The murmur of students melds into a song so vivacious and alive, it’s a shame I’m the only one who hears it. BEAUTIFUL. And this one - brink of shredding it into confetti and feeding it to the lab rats fifth period. Some great visuals and poetic language!

    I don't know, yet, why it's so important she makes it into "Music School" and is that really the name of the place she's trying so hard to get into? Even her friend thinks she's being ridiculous about it. So why is she so worried? Also, she's got a gift for music, and all the other students trying out don't. Even if she's having a hard time composing, isn't she still way better than average? I'm sure all of these questions get answered. And it's a good sign that I'm interested to find out.

    I think this is really getting better!

    Best of luck with it!

  4. Hi Hannah!

    You’re doing great!
    Woah. I know that your genre says “Magical Realism,” but I was not focused on that fact because your pages read so contemporary. I’d suggest that early on, you hint to the reader that this is not your regular contemporary, even if it’s as simple as one of the characters being obsessed with Greek mythology. I really thought that the first paragraph was metaphorical, not realizing that Ares referred to the actual Greek God.

    Ellena’s “gift” is interesting, simply because of the fine line between her natural aptitude for music and a supernatural ability. This would be easier to grasp if you could make clear what about this “gift” transcends ordinary talent. Does Ellena know that she has this gift? Or does that come as a surprise to her?

    You set up the goal nicely in the second paragraph. I would like to see in the third paragraph a conflict that would prevent her from reaching that goal. Also, the final sentence in the pitch is vague. If you were able to word this more specifically, you would leave a greater impact on the reader.


    I like this first paragraph better, because it does a better job hinting at the paranormal aspects. Could you push this even further? Make clear to us that we’re not dealing with an ordinary world?

    “Frustration eats away at me like termites through a house made of popsicle sticks.” You can probably cut the sentence off after termites. Less forced.

    I like how you’re getting to the action much sooner. I’m still not clear, as a reader, that Helena and The Fates are not simply metaphorical but referring to actual beings. Can you make this explicitly clear? It would add a lot of uniqueness.

    “I will never leave” what? Here’s an opportunity to explain this world.

    The descriptions of the music she hears is lovely.

    Watch the word “stupid.”

    Overall, this is a great improvement! On your next iteration, think about making this magical world real and explicit to the reader.

    Good job!

  5. Pitch:
    What a fun concept! Love the idea of the greek gods trying to ruin her life, haha. In the pitch one thing I was unclear about: you mention the Fates keeping her from music school and then right after mention her stepmother – is her stepmother a Fate? I think clarifying what exactly is happening: why the Fates want to keep her out of music school and how they have influence over her life. I love the descriptions in the first paragraph, but I’m not sure if that’s where you should start. In the second paragraph I start to put the pieces together (like oh, Ares was summoned by her playing music – which is hilarious by the way), so maybe start there?
    In the final paragraph if you can give more specifics about the challenges she’ll be facing I think that would be better. Instead of just “completing a quest” describe the quest, or instead of saying “the journey will test her gift” describe how the journey will test her gift. Just those couple of things will help the pitch stand out.
    This sounds like such a fun read!

    Yessss, I still love the beginning with the music only she can hear. I love how you’ve changed to that.
    One question I had: she mentions the Fates pretty quickly – is there a reason she says that, or is it just an expression (obviously there is a reason eventually, just wondering what her current relationship to greek gods is). Also – and this is super nit-picky – for Mari’s description I love the “who needs a heart when you have donuts” shirt, but I’m confused about how the MC can see that if Mari is wearing a sweatshirt.

    I love the concept of this book and I think you’re beginning pages are getting really good!

  6. Pitch Comments:
    To be honest, I think your entire pitch is in the second paragraph. The other two paragraphs are adding plot but no substance. I would just delete them.

  7. Pages Comments:
    -You mention eyes 7 times in these pages. I think you need to eliminate at least 5 of these.
    -Watch for areas where these best friends are telling each other things they already know. Best friends often talk in a code that almost doesn't make sense to anyone else.
    -“Gag me, right?” > I can't imagine any teen saying this. It's a very 80s thing.

    Best of luck!

  8. Hi Hannah,

    This book sounds so exciting! I love your fresh take on Greek Mythology, and Ellena's ability to hear the music in other people sounds like it could give her great insight and empathy.

    Your pitch does a lot of great work laying out the story, but I think the wording could be more specific to clarify the "why." For example, why does Ares threaten her specifically? Why are the other Greek gods helping her? Why does she need to complete this quest? I think we just need a little bit more detail to really make the pitch pop.

    I think you've really nailed the voice in the pages, and Ellena comes through so vividly! But I think a lot of the information in this opening scene is being provided by the dialogue, rather than organically in the scene itself. The scene doesn't feel very proactive, and like we (the reader) are learning something new alongside the character. I would have loved to see Ellena composing or playing, in addition to just discussing her problems.

    I think the concept and writing here is really strong, and can't wait to see where the story goes!

    All best,

    1. Thank you so much for the read and comments! I definitely see where starting the piece off with her composing or playing would be a really interesting start - hello idea for next revision!

      I will certainly take another stab at the pitch and try to answer the why better.

      Thanks again!