Sunday, April 8, 2018

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Contois

Name: Hannah Contois
Genre: YA Magical Realism
Title: Wishing on Stars and Other Intangible Objects

The laws of the universe are simple and finite: smart girls go stupid over bad boys; the more jocks you have in a room together, the fewer the total umber of working brain cells; the only smell worse than a high school, is a dead body. 

The halls at Stillwater High reek with a toxic maelstrom of body odor and fear, barely masked by an overabundance of cologne and dry shampoo. I don’t particularly add anything sweet smelling to the mix, what with cloud of formaldehyde following me everywhere I go. No one seems to notice though, or at least make any comments about my stench, but that may have more to do with the aftermath of The Incident than not wanting to be rude.

Walking into the cafeteria, I find a table and collapse into a free chair, pleading: “Just kill me now and put me out of my misery.” I slip my messenger bag off and tuck it under the table along with my violin and blink pleadingly at my best friend. “I promise to haunt you for the rest of your life.”

White teeth snap through a carrot stick as she stares back drolly. “Whatever it is, it can’t be…” She pauses, sniffs, and gags. “What on god’s green Earth is that smell?” Her voice goes nasally as she pinches her nostrils against my obtrusive scent.

I cringe. “Wilbur.”

“Wilbur?” She blurts, probably as shocked by me speaking a man’s name as she is from my smell. It’s been a long time since I dare even breathe a name belonging to the male persuasion. “Who is Wilbur and why are you hanging out with him when he smells like death?”

“Wilbur is the fetal pig I just had to dissect.” I gag, remembering the pull of the scalpel against his chemical soaked skin and swear to any god listening that I will worship them forever if they could make me forget.

Nose still pinched together, Mari gives me the up-down. “Please tell me that you have a free block to go home and shower before our class together.”

I glare at her. “No, and I wouldn’t go even if I did. Helena the Heinous is probably still home. “My eyes find the clock. Noon. “Still home. The bars are still closed.”

Mari snorts, offering me a carrot as a peace treaty. I politely decline. “Appetite is MIA since poor Wilbur.”

She shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

When I remain silent, Mari pats the back of my hand. “Cheer up, Buttercup. You weren’t the one who actually killed Wilbur and no one will notice that you smell like you belong in the morgue. It’s not weird.”

I replace my forehead on the tabletop, muttering a denial against it, my breath fogging the sticky surface and dampening my nose. “I feel like a murderer, Mari. I don’t even eat meat. How could they think it’s be a good learning experience for me to cut up a poor piglet? My heart is broken.”

She snorts. “Who needs one of those? It takes up space meant for donuts.”

I roll my head to look up at her. “Never have I so badly wanted to punch you.”

I’m not rich in the way of friends, especially since The Incident where I dumped the king of Stillwater High's social hierarchy which marooned me on the Island of Misfit Teenagers. Where I am just a resident though, Mari is Queen, in all her 5 foot, sassy emo glory. She may be caustic and rude to the majority of society, but she has stuck with me through the thick and the very, very thin. She also doesn’t take my threat very seriously, waving it away like it is nothing more than a gnat bussing around her nose.

“Oh, please. There have been plenty of times before this, I’m sure.” She flicks the end of her long black braid over her shoulder, the beany she has pinned tipping precariously. Caramel brown eyes twinkle with amusement. She cocks an eyebrow and pauses mid-chew pinning me with a look that says she can see right into my soul. “Something else is going on.” Her eyes walk across my face heavy enough that I can almost feel the residual footprints. “What’s wrong?”

My throat clenches and my nose burns. How well she knows me… “I haven’t written any new music in months and Mr. Michaels emailed me a reminder about my auditions last night.”

To some, this would be no big deal. To me, it’s a gargantuan deal. Music is both my gift and curse. Both my ticket out of this hellhole and the reason why I would be stuck her forever. I grind my inner tips into my eyes to stave off tears of frustration. “Mari, what if I never finish this piece?” I hate whining but I can’t seem to free myself from the swirling toilet bowl of self-doubt that has been trying to drown me every time I sit down to write and nothing comes out. “What if I’m stuck here forever, working at the laundromat until I marry a fat guy out of desperation, pop out a couple of angry children, and then die alone surrounded by forty-two cats when my husband leaves me for the hot pool-boy?”

Mari shakes her head, lips quirking and a laugh shining in her eyes. “You know that won’t happen.”

“But how can you be so sure?”

A hand smacks the back of my head. For being so small, she sure does pack a wallop. “Because this is high school, dummy. This isn’t the end-all-be-all to your life. You shine too brightly for this town and have too much ambition. You won’t get stuck here because you won’t allow yourself to get stuck here. You’re just like the dude who pushed the rock up that hill.”

“Sisyphus is his name and you know it too because of Ms. Ora. Don’t pretend you don’t.”


“You also know that he was doomed to an eternity of that, right?”

“But see, you aren’t. Besides, if we both turn forty and are still single we’ll just get a civil union and call it good.” I laugh. “Now, where’s my gold star?”

The bell overhead rings and I retrieve my bag and Darcy from under the table. “I’ll be sure to steal some from Mr. Michals for you.”

Mari snorts, dropping her own messenger bag over her head. “Like that tight-ass would have gold stars. No, he wouldn’t know a gold star if someone stuck one to his forehead.” Mari tucks her remaining carrots into a plastic bag and tucks it away. “On the opposite side of the spectrum - are you 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 and most assuredly has at least three different personalities. I’m a little shocked that the district hired her but beggars can’t be choosers and our district is definitely on the beggar side. “Only if someone restocked her tissue supply.”

All last class, Ms. Ora had carried around a tube of toilet paper and randomly broken down into sobbing fits, her emotional upheaval due to a recent break she was - or wasn’t - dealing with. My ears had rung for hours after class, my chest a black hole of despair and pain from the song of her sadness that her tears had constructed in my heart. 


  1. A few comments:
    1) The biggest problem here is the mental whiplash we're getting from your character. This is only 5 pages so she only has time to be obsessing about ONE thing. In your passage, she's thinking about the dead pig and The Incident and not writing music and her teacher and her stepmother (or mother...not sure). When in her head, we need to only hear about the one thing she is actually thinking about even if she has to talk about other things with her friend.
    -I would change the reference to the dead body in the beginning since it makes it sound like you mean a person. Also, you are saying that the worst smell is a dead body but then you are kinda contradicting yourself by saying the worst smell is formaldehyde or her smelling like formaldehyde.
    -Watch the places where you're giving the action to the body parts instead of the person (ie, "Caramel brown eyes twinkle..." and "A hand smacks...").

    Finally, there are a few typos in here. You might want to do a quick proofread before you post again.


    1. Hi Holly,

      Thank you so much for the feedback! In this next revision I am really trying to hone in on the one thing that really concerns her - the thing that moves the plot along - and trying to state the goal, the stakes, and the conflict right in the beginning based on what she is thinking about.

      I have also cleaned up the typos (a rather embarrassing thing I caught too late in this draft).

      I hope that you enjoy the next version,

  2. I like the interaction between the two characters. Both voices sound YA and distinct. MC seems likable enough, but I'd need a more compelling reason eventually to root for her. She's the outcast wanting to escape.

    Her best friend labeled as "queen" made me question how your MC could be such an outcast. Making her friend part of the in crowd would work better for me. Maybe I'm being too picky : ) Unless she's just recently been demoted, but I didn't get that impression because you've done a great job showing us your MC's personality. She seems unpopular for several reasons. I like that.

    The MC's desire to complete her music piece lacks a concrete consequence.You hint at her motivation to leave town - Helena the Heinous - but other than her being a normal teenager wanting life to be different, I don't know what this story is about yet.

    I think you have lots of positives to work with. The characters, setting, and writer's voice seem YA. Well done!


    1. Hi Kim!

      Thank you so much for your feedback! In hindsight, I see how referring to Mari as "queen" was confusing since I gave her ex the title of "king" and hope that I have fixed that in the next revision. I also have attempted to make the consequence of her not completing her music piece more concrete and meaningful. I would greatly appreciate your feedback in the next draft to see if I have helped make that clearer or what I can do to make it better.

      I hope you enjoy the next version!

  3. Dear Hannah.

    I think you have a great voice going!!

    I like the little thoughts and internalization we get from her.

    Nice dialogue and exchange.

    I question why you are starting the book at this exact moment. Why did you pick this spot? What does the MC want here and what is about to change for her? I would love to see her make a decision in these first couple of pages. It feels like set up for an action that's going to come soon.

    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts. Excited to read more!

    1. Hi Mary!

      Thank you so much for your feedback regarding the starting point. I am aiming to make the starting point in this next revision more meaningful and though I don't know if I can make the change happen that quickly, at least get the ball rolling in the right direction rather than pinball all over the place.

      Hope you enjoy the next revision!

  4. Hannah,

    I loved the first sentence! Great combo of setting and voice. But, I began to tune out when she was started talking about the music. Not that I have anything against music, I just really liked the Wilbur interaction, but then we switched topics and it seemed Wilbur didn’t move the story along. I love your voice throughout and your descriptions of high school life are hilarious and true! As it is right now it kinds of reads as three random bits: Wilbur explanation, needed information about music and that she wants to leave the town, and then a segue into class time, instead of a comprehensive scenes driving things forward. I love magical realism though, I wish I could read the rest of this book haha!

    -K. Stoker

    1. Thank you for your feedback on the opening! I enjoyed writing the Wilbur scene myself but totally understand that its not exactly helpful when it doesn't move the scene forward. I am really working at keeping the scene relevant and moving the plot along.

      I hope you enjoy the next revision!

  5. At the beginning I assumed that the dead body would be a person. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if there's a reason you want us to think this, but I do think that should be intentional. I don't think you need to spend so much time on the general smells of the school. The scent of formaldehyde got lost for me with so many others mentioned.

    The part about dumping the king of Stillwater High confused me a little. Part of it was the wording, but I think a little more detail about this Incident would be helpful (although we may not need to know about the Incident right here).

    Do we need to know about Wilbur the pig to start? You mention that the MC doesn't eat meat so I can see some conflict for her having to dissect the pig, but the bigger issue appears to be the fact she's stuck on her music. If that's the main conflict, then I would focus on that in these pages. Can you give us something more specific about how the MC's music will be her ticket out? It doesn't have to be much, but some kind of detail (if she's trying to win a scholarship, for example) will help those stakes feel more concrete.

    I like the line "the laws of the universe are simple and finite." I wasn't quite sure how the next bit about smart girls and bad boys fit into the rest of the opening.

    Can Mari use the MC's name at some point so we'll know it?

    Near the end: who/what is Darcy?

    I love the Sisyphus bit. I'm enjoying Mari's character. Nice dialogue overall.


    1. Hi Jim!

      Thank you for your feedback, it really helped me rework these opening pages and focus in on the main point - that she is stuck with her music. I also hope that I helped make it clearer why its so important that her piece be finished but please comment on the next version if I am still missing something there.

      I also have added the MC's name into the dialogue and explained the name Darcy.

      Glad you caught the Sisyphus bit - the Greek origin is important for the remainder of the story!

      Hope you enjoy the revision!

  6. Hi Hannah,

    Great start here! I enjoyed reading this.

    I agree with Holly that there is too much going on here. In my opinion, you spend way too much time on Wilbur (making an ordinary situation overly dramatic) and in contrast, you only spend a couple paragraphs on the music (which is what I suspect is what really matters to her) before moving back into melodrama (what if I die alone?). I think you should expand on the music bit and let us really get to know her. Make us care about her. Make her compelling and different. The goal here is to get us rooting for her in the first 5 pages, and I think you have a better chance doing that by focusing on what she truly cares about, rather than on flippant conversation.

    I would move the description of the best friend earlier. When she starts speaking, we don’t know who she is speaking to. The best friend is only referred to as “she.” We don’t get her name until a few paragraphs down and then her description after that. If you move the name and description up, the reader will feel better grounded.

    Who or what is Darcy?

    Finally, I feel this character is a little judgmental/offensive. She says that jocks being stupid is a law of the universe, implies that there’s something wrong with marrying a fat person, and that 40 is old. I would strongly reconsider these statements.

    Good luck! I think you have a nice voice and am excited to see where the revision takes you.


    1. Yikes! That was never my intention - I will definitely adjust that in the revision!

      Thank you for your feedback on the focus point of these pages, it's something that I am working on adjusting to make sure that I am only talking about the point that will move the story forward.

      Thanks also for the comment on Mari and Darcy!

      I will work on applying your suggestions and hope you enjoy the second revision!

    I loved this opening— “the only smell worst than high school, is a dead body”—and the way you played out the Wilbur beat. Excellent reveal! The interaction between the protag (find a way to name drop) and her bestie, Mari is awesome and sounds very authentic as teen dialog. The conversation was interesting and pulled me right in. It also set up a bunch of questions, which is ideal for this point in your story. You want your reader on-board and actively asking questions.

    Here’s what came up for me. There are a bunch of set ups that hint at things to come: violin (music?), names belonging to the male persuasion (possible LGBTQIA?), Helena the Heinous (possible home life problem?), Island of Misfit Teens (possible revenge of the nerds or…?), Sisyphus (modern retelling, perhaps?), the emotional health of a teacher, Ms. Ora (possible mental health issues?) and finally, worry at being stuck in a small town (fear of failure?).

    The over-riding theme seems to be protag’s music and her worry that if she’s not good enough she’ll fail and be stuck in this town forever. Take a look at all the possible story threads you managed to lay in in only 5 pages. Will all of these threads stay in the story and be woven into the final tapestry? Or, are some of them just your extremely competent, strong and confident writing style embellishing your prose? I also couldn’t tell from the title where this story might go. Only you can answer this question—but the reason I point this out is, so you can decide the strongest approach/group of topics to tell the story you want to tell. Sometimes when we get a bunch of disparate ideas working in a story they weaken and can even distract from the power of the simple theme. Example, if the main thrust of your story is her music, then you want, as much as possible, to support that effort with your thoughts, examples, dialog and actions—especially in the first 5 pages. You want to make those pages CONCEPT STRONG so that there is no confusion about where this story is going to go. Your timing is spot on! You’ve got this. Can’t wait to see the revision.