Monday, May 21, 2018

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Johnson Rev 2

Name: Mary Johnson
Genre: MG Dark Fantasy
Title: The Forest of Beating Hearts


Years ago, Nairi fell through a crack between worlds. Now she’s thirteen, struggling alongside her best friend, Dana, in a forest filled with monsters and uncontrollable magic. When they discover the walled City of Iore, they think they’ve finally found somewhere safe. Except the people of Iore aren’t quite human. Strangers are far from welcome. And when Nairi and Dana hatch a plan to break in, they uncover more trouble than they bargained for.

Iore City has a magic of its own. Streets change position, mysterious children run through walls, and people wind up their hearts every night before going to sleep. Worst of all, there’s the sinister Clicking Man, who won’t rest until Nairi and Dana are located and destroyed. If Nairi can’t outwit him—and the city itself—they’ll lose any hope of safety . . . and, possibly, each other.



The market square is deserted, silent and asleep like the rest of Iore City. Snow swirls through beams of golden moonlight. It’s so peaceful that when a monster shrieks from beyond the Wall, my concentration cracks and I skid a little on the cobbles, causing Dana to bump into me. 

“Stealthy, Nairi,” 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, 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 prowled the streets, I’d believe we were the only people in the world. 

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 stone, smooth as blackened bones. 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 onwards. “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 can’t remember the last time I slept so peacefully. Monsters are loudest at night. 

Of course, 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. Although, 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.

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.

Then, from somewhere close by, I hear the crunch, crunch of footsteps in the snow.

“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 monster-pelt outfits are perfect camouflage. The fur is inky black and melts seamlessly into the darkness. 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. 

“Did you hear that?” one mutters. His hand twitches towards a baton at his hip. 

Slowly, slowly, I reach for my knife. Dana’s breathing crackles beside me. The guard steps closer. 

“It’s nothing, Holiver,” says his companion. “Let’s go. I’m freezing.”

The guard shakes his head and retreats. They vanish around another corner. 

“Cripes,” Dana whispers. “It ain’t been that close in weeks.” 

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


  1. Mary,

    I love the premise of this story and the idea of these sleeping citizens that work like clocks. The only thing I have to say about it is I believe ellipses are generally out of style, especially with a query, but then again, there are writers who use them a lot and are great writers.

    I think this line is a great place to start:
    "The people of Iore are unconscious in their beds and the city dreams with them.
    Just a preference thing, but that really gets me. Probably because it has action, but also describes the world right off the bat.

    Your descriptions and your world are so colorful and vivid. If there's more of that in the rest of the story, then I'm sure it's a lovely book. Your action flows even better and you've done a fantastic job of weaving the dialogue into that.

    I think you've got all the elements you need for opening pages: world building, voice, character, wonderfully written prose, action, and tension. Good luck. I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.

    All the best,


  2. Mary,

    I like this opening a lot better, and I'm having trouble putting my finger on what changed, but the part with the guards seems to have smoothed out a bit, too. Now that I've read the pitch, I wonder if you shouldn't linger on the part with the streets switching places a little more. I wonder if people will recall it when the streets really start switching. Maybe briefly show that in the scene instead of or in addition to the description. "That wasn't there last night," etc. Just a little more of a sign that giving a clue.

    The pitch sounds really cool. It's a book I'd like to read. I'm not sure how to read that first line. I felt myself trying to picture what falling through a crack between world would look like. Is it metaphorical? Is it Alice falling into Wonderland? A Wrinkle in Time? It seems like it's not essential to the summary, so maybe just cut it and indicate that she's only got Dana.

    Great job and best of luck!


  3. Hi Mary

    I love your pitch. I really want to find out more about the Clicking Man and what Nairi does to survive.

    As Adam says, I'm not sure about the first line. Unless this is vital to the story somehow (such as the story revolving around her trying to get home but it doesn't seem like it does from the rest of the pitch), I would be inclined to leave it out of the pitch and just have it in your synopsis.

    This final version of your pages is so much stronger than the first. I'm really impressed and I love the additional tension you've added with the guards.

    Well done! And best of luck with revisions & querying!


  4. Hello Mary!

    Woo! I love some of these details that you've added. "Smooth as blackened bones" is lovely and really helps settle the reader into the atmosphere of this dark but beautiful place. My only complaint at this point is that we don't get a little taste of the things you tease in your pitch - like the CLICKING MAN. WHAT IS THAT. I would love to see something bout that -- even just a mention -- it would definitely hook me in these first pages to keep reading.

    Great pitch. I think you could streamline it even more. My advice for you at this point is to try to be as efficient with your word choices as possible. Is there a way to both establish the setting AND the main character's personality by using only a few words (like "smooth as blackened bones"!)? I think you could get it down to one paragraph.

    As I've mentioned in previous comments, I still don't understand how Nairi and her dad's plan is going to work, but since you haven't made any revisions to this end, I'm guessing you have a reason for this. If I were an agent reading this pitch, I would have the same questions just from the pitch, and not in a "I'm dying to find out" way but in a "I'm not sure the plot is properly thought out" way. Just flagging this for your information.

    Best wishes with your manuscript, and thanks for the opportunity to read you the past few weeks!


  5. Hello, Mary!

    What a fascinating story idea you have here. From reading the pitch, I was definitely curious to look at the pages and your writing has some truly lovely sections.

    I will admit, from the pitch, I expected to start earlier in the story. The whole first paragraph in the pitch ultimately ended up as backstory. So when looking at your pitch versus pages, I feel like the plot is not being as showcased, if that makes any sense.

    J.M mention not understanding how Nari and her dad's plan is going to work, and for my two cents, I felt bad for these innocent people as Nari is essentially stealing lives when she takes their keys. Why should I root for Nari? How will stealing these people's lives make her safe? Ultimately, I have alot of questions about the logic behind this plan.

    Again, you've created an interesting story, so now it is a matter of smoothing out some kinks, but I am super curious about this story.

    Best of luck,

  6. You did a great job of improving the tension in the scene with the guards! I love the line "My heart hums." It's such a simple way to get the point across, but you did a fantastic job choosing how to word it.

    Honestly I love your story and your pitch. I would love to read it. I think you capture a lot of creepiness in your pitch that maybe isn't quite there in the pages yet. Your pitch talks about the city moving and the walls, but I wanted a little more in your first pages. I get that vibe a bit, but if you amped it up it could create a little more tension.

    I agree with Ms. Morris when she says you should have us root for Nairi more in her plot. Maybe a tiny hint of a backstory about the automatons would help with this. Are they rude? Evil? Exclusive? I think the mystery behind them is great but what does Nairi think of them and how have they wronged her?

    I just love this story so much and I think it's going to be amazing. I like your writing style and I really enjoy the way you create your characters around each other. The relationship between the two girls is so well done.

    Thank you for sharing! Good luck!