Sunday, May 13, 2018

1st 5 Pages May Workshop- Johnson Rev 1

Name: Mary Johnson
Genre: Middle Grade (Dark Fantasy)
Title: The Forest of Beating Hearts


A monster shrieks from beyond the Wall and cracks my concentration. I skid a little on the cobbles, causing Dana to bump into me. 

“Stealthy,” she says. 

I wrinkle my nose. “Probably not a good idea to run when there’s so much ice anyways.” 

“Well,” she glances over her shoulder, “we ain’t being chased.” 

Yet. The word flickers unsaid. 

It seems a silly thing to worry about. If not for the snow, swirling through beams of golden moonlight, Iore City could be frozen in time. No windows glow. No chimneys exhale smoke. The people of Iore are unconscious in their beds and the city dreams with them. If I didn’t know that guards prowl the streets, I’d believe we were the only people in the world. 

But we’re not. And since nobody is supposed to be awake after dark, we can’t get caught.

We slink around the edge of the market square, past the closed-up haberdasher’s and sweet shops. Across the square sits the Crystal Pavilion, with its spires stretching upwards to pierce the sky and stain-glass windows casting rainbow shadows on the paths below. All the other buildings in Iore are made of filigreed black stone. The glass walls of the Crystal Pavilion seem even stranger in comparison. 

Dana is focussed on the shopfronts. Blonde hair sticks out at funny angles underneath her hood. She cut it with a paring blade yesterday after it got too tangled, but she’s no hairdresser. Every strand is a different length. “We could steal some warmer clothes,” she says. “Nobody’d know. Some jackets, new scarves . . .” 

I tug her forward. “No,” I say reluctantly. “We’re not that kind of thief.” 

She groans but follows me. She might be my best friend, but Dana can be a bad influence when it comes to acting sensible. 

As we leave the marketplace behind, the city seems to shrink around us. Cobbled streets become narrower and rooftops zip together overhead, blocking out the moonlight. I swear the streets switch places. No matter how hard I try to memorize their routes, they seem to change every night. Sometimes, it feels like the city is swallowing us, and I have to fight the urge to run back across the Wall and into the forest we call home. Being eaten is kind of a fear of mine. 

“Here?” I ask. The house I’ve picked is perfectly ordinary, three stories tall and carved with stone flowers. A window on the top floor is open, drapes fluttering.  

“Suits me.” 

I nudge open the front door and cringe when the hinges squeak. No lock, as usual. Dana shuts it behind me. The house is swathed in darkness, and I trip over a bit of bunched-up carpet as I head towards the staircase. Most houses have staircases in the middle of their main rooms, so it isn’t hard to find, though I wish we could have candles. The light would probably get us caught, but it’d stop me from stubbing my toes all the time. 

I try the first door I see upstairs. A bedroom. No wallpaper, just more black stone for walls and ceilings. I shiver and my breath puffs into a cloud. It’s colder here than outside. Dana opens a chest of drawers and pulls out a gilt hand-mirror. 

“Dany,” I say. “C’mon. I told you, no messing with people’s stuff.”

“You’re no fun,” she says, but she puts the mirror back. 

I grit my teeth. It’s not my fault Papa isn’t here and I have to pretend to be the adult. But we’re thirteen now. Almost grown-ups ourselves. Now’s not the time for playing around. Sleeping Iorans never wake up, no matter how loud we are, but the guards are a different story.

Sure enough, the boy in the bed doesn’t twitch as we search his room. I wish I could sleep so soundly. But then, the people of Iore City aren’t human. Papa called them automatons, but that isn’t quite right either. On the outside they look just like us, fleshy and soft with hair that frizzes in the rain. The only thing giving them away is a keyhole the size of a penny in the centre of their chests—on the inside, they’re like wind-up toys. Without their keys, their insides stop working and they shut down. They can’t wake up until their keys are returned. 

Imagine the damage if someone decided to steal them.

“Found it,” Dana says. She swipes a silver key from his bedside table. “They ain’t even trying to hide ’em.” 

“Because they’re stupid,” I say. Of course, I could be wrong. If there’s one thing living in the forest has taught me, it’s that anything might be a trap. Predators often pull stunts like that. They’ll make themselves seem weak and helpless, then they’ll rip the throats from anything cocky enough to get close

But we’re hunters too, after all. And we’ve gotten away with this for two whole months now.

Our plan is simple. Steal the keys. Stop their hearts. And we won’t give any of them back until the Iorans promise to let us stay. It doesn’t matter if they like us or not—it’s a million times safer within the Wall than beyond it. 

Dana ties the key to a ribbon around her waist. Then we hurry downstairs to the street. 

“Onward?” Dana grins crookedly. 

“Onward,” I agree. 

We run across the cobbles, not bothering about which way. The more random we are, the harder it’ll be for guards to catch us. Papa always said there’s nothing more dangerous than being predictable. We climb up drainpipes, duck under arches, hurry past statues of angels and gryphons and hooded figures, collecting keys as we go. As the night wears on, the two golden moons rise like a giant pair of eyes. Combined with hundreds of glaring statures, it feels like the city itself is watching us.

“Guards.” I grab Dana’s tattered cloak and yank her away from a gaslight into the shadows. 

She scrunches her eyes like that’ll make her invisible. I try to hold absolutely still. The stolen keys clink whenever I breathe in. 

Two Ioran guards stride around a corner, dressed in magnificent white-and-copper uniforms. Their expressions are very grim. I wonder if they’ve ever smiled in their lives. 

Luckily, our own outfits (made from inky monster pelts) are perfect camouflage. The guards pass right by. I’m about to relax when an icicle drips onto Dana’s nose and she gives a tiny squeak of surprise. 

They freeze. My hearts hums. 

Then they shake their heads and vanish around another corner. 

“Cripes,” Dana mutters. “It ain’t been that close in ages.” 

I crane my neck after the guards, making sure they’re really gone. “You’re telling me. Time to go home, I think.”

With extra care, we head towards the Wall. It’s twice as high and wide as seems necessary, since Iore City isn’t under threat from neighbouring fortresses or armies. There’s nothing beyond except for the forest. 

But that’s the point. The Iorans don’t want anything nasty leaking from the forest into their precious city. 

Like, for example, us.

Down an alley hung with cobwebs, there’s an angel statue with half a face, carved directly into the Wall. Most places in Iore City are spotless, so this place has obviously been forgotten. It smells damp. Below the statue sits a tunnel leading underneath the Wall. 

Dana hangs a little ways back.


  1. Hi Mary,

    You have very beautiful descriptions. Little additions stand out, like the keys clinking together when she breathes. The descriptions that carry over from the first draft are strong, too, like the city frozen in time passage. In my mind, that’s clearly your strength. I say that not only as a compliment, but because I think it’s an important for a writer to play to her strengths (and minimize her weaknesses, but that’s a different topic).

    I know most of the feedback on all the pieces last week focus on getting off to a blazing fast start, but I feel like a vivid description in your opening would really set the stage for the rest of the work. So, even incorporating Erin’s feedback last week about starting with a shriek, which makes sense to me, I think you can describe that sound and the atmosphere surrounding it just as vividly as you describe Iore City a couple of paragraphs later. There’s a lot to think about with pacing and a million other things, but description is your strong suit, and I’d show it off right away.

    [I do love this little line of dialogue, too:
    “Well,” she glances over her shoulder, “we ain’t being chased.”
    Yet. The word flickers unsaid.]

  2. Much better with the suspense this time. The near miss with the guards was great. And I really want to know what's in the scary tunnel!

    The explanation for why they are doing this worked better this time too. I'm glad the Iorians will be ok when they get their keys back!

    Presumably there's going to be some kind of ransom note at some point to give them the chance to let our characters stay?

    Dana feels very real with her interest in the shops and the mirror. Our narrator (I don't think her name appears anywhere in this version?) is trying to be grown up and sensible, but it does leave her feeling a little flat at the moment. I want start to get to know her a little better, if possible.

    I'd also just like a smidge more peril / threat from the soldiers. Maybe one turns back towards them, but his colleague calls him off because he's cold and wants to get inside. Something like that?

    Really enjoying this story and looking forward to your pitch next week to get a glimpse of where this is all going!


  3. Adam is so right when he said you are great at describing your setting. I feel like your world is it’s own character and I’m completely immersed in your story because of these beautiful descriptions that perfectly encapsulate the mood of the story. I love it. So many amazing moments!

    I also really enjoy how you have two very distinct voices for each character. I get the impression that your MC is older, wiser, more mature and Dana is young, restless, and impulsive. It reminds me a bit of Caraval by Stephanie Garber with the dynamic between the two, which is definitely a compliment because that book is amazing.

    The ending is intriguing, but I’d love for your last line to be a bit more on the nose. If you want to give the impression that the wall scares Dana, then perhaps some dialogue from her would help, or even a line about how her normal chatter goes silent when they get close to the wall.

    And the addition of the close call with the guard was great! I was on the edge of my seat! You could maybe give that scene a bit more bite if you described how the guards make them feel. I think of the scene in Lord of the Rings when Frodo is hiding from the Nazgul, or when Harry encounters the dementors. Maybe these guards aren’t as scary, but how do they make our MC feel when they’re around?

    I love this story so much and I’m so looking forward to your pitch next week! Good luck and I think it’s really coming together.

  4. Mary:

    Great job keeping the suspense up without compromising your world -- I can tell you really understood the feedback from the last round and worked hard to keep these characters paddling instead of smooth sailing!

    I'm also really into the shriek opening followed by a little wry sarcasm. Great way to set the mood, and you use "yet" in the perfect way.

    I agree that I'd still like to know how they're communicating their intentions to the decision makers in Iore. If this will be unfolded later, then that's okay -- I think for me the flag pops up when the narrator says "Our plan is simple." I expect the complete plan to follow that statement, but as written I'm still missing the negotiation component. Maybe if you didn't have "Our plan is simple" I wouldn't feel like I'm still hanging on this one thing.

    Nit-picking: I think you should lose the parenthetical and just say "Luckily, our own monster pelt [cloaks/uniforms/armor/robes/whatever] are perfect for camouflage."

    More nit-picking: Dana says "it ain't been that close in ages" but earlier the narrator remarks that it's only been two months.

    Great atmosphere and mood. Can't wait to see what you come up with.


  5. Mary,

    I've only a few, nitpicky things which might be too close to line edits. Other than that, I'm excited about this story, probably not just because of the strength of the writing, the sibling dynamic (which I do love), but because it suggests a much larger world, which of course is important with fantasy.

    This first line:

    "A monster shrieks from beyond the Wall and cracks my concentration. I skid a little on the cobbles, causing Dana to bump into me."

    I like the line of dialogue that follows. Immediately shows their dynamic. But I feel dropped into the middle of a paragraph. In the middle of the action is good, but this just seems abrupt I guess.

    "But then, the people of Iore City aren’t human." Nothing wrong with this per say. It could just be the conversational style of the narrator, but it feels parenthetical. Maybe try scrambling those few sentences about to see what else you can come up with.

    Other than that, I love the imagery, world, and concept. Can't wait to find out what the entire work is about :)

  6. Hi Mary!

    Fabulous job with this revision! You truly have a talent for descriptions, I felt like I was in this world with these girls. I love the way you've made this more scary - but I still think you can amp up the tension/stakes even more.

    This was confusing:

    If I didn’t know that guards prowl the streets, I’d believe we were the only people in the world.

    But we’re not. And since nobody is supposed to be awake after dark, we can’t get caught.

    It is a bit contradictory, and I think it's stronger without the last sentence - And since nobody is supposed to be awake after dark, we can’t get caught. With it, the reader stops worrying about them getting caught. Without it, we are more on edge.

    This took me out of the story, it felt too adult: I wish I could sleep so soundly. - I know what you're trying to say, but show us. I couldn't remember the last time I'd slept through the night. Then tell us what keeps her awake - the monsters, etc.

    In this revision, I found myself wondering - who goes around putting in and turning the keys? The guards? Seems like a lot of work, and it doesn't seem like there are a lot of guards.

    Love this: As the night wears on, the two golden moons rise like a giant pair of eyes. Combined with hundreds of glaring statures, it feels like the city itself is watching us. It is not only so beautifully written, it adds to the tension - so great job! But in the next sentence she says:
    “Guards.” I grab Dana’s tattered cloak and yank her away from a gaslight into the shadows. - Pause a beat and let us know what she sees or hears, show us what is going on, so we feel the nervousness she must feel.

    I'd also suggest expanding this: Luckily, our own outfits (made from inky monster pelts) are perfect camouflage - if you tell us more about these monsters, we will be more afraid when they go back over the wall!

    Overall, great job - I can't wait to read your revision!