Monday, May 14, 2018

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Prenatt Rev 1

Name: James Prenatt
Genre: Young Adult Horror Fantasy
Title: What We Do Is Secret

In Muddy Creek, a child goes missing in the woods each year. Mud vine got’em, they’ll say. A middle school boy had been found, not far away, his body tangled in the vines as though it had come alive and strangled him.

Scarlet thought about his face, purple and swollen, frozen with that last look of desperation in his eyes, a look she was all too familiar with. Even worse than that, she imagined the look on his parents’ face when they saw the body.

She sat on the swing in her backyard, reading as her feet brushed the scuffed brown patch where grass never grew. The mud vine was shedding the last of its purple and white petals. She brushed the pesky, pretty little things off her book for the umpteenth time and mumbled to herself:

It. Tommy Lee Wallace. 1990.

Three red balloons with the number seventeen were tied to the railing of the back porch. Scarlet untied one and watched it float away.

She threw on her red penny coat and put the hood up. A flock of blackbirds swarmed out of the trees revealing the path to the Fallout. She thought of her mother’s words: Everywhere else the birds fly south for the winter, but here in Lethe County the blackbirds stay year round, isn’t that cool, pumkin?

Midnight had come and seniors of St. Francis would gather there to sing the Song That Wakes the Dead.

The participants were called sleepers. Those that go alone are called liars. Everyone had a companion take them to the Fallout. Everyone but Scarlet.

Scarlet stepped through the path and walked urgently, fearing that she might not arrive in time. With each step the vines seemed to get thicker, wrapped about the trees like hundreds of motionless snakes, waiting the chance to ensnare her legs and pull her into the ground. The coat trailed about her ankles, making her feel tall and powerful.

Finding the Fallout didn’t prove as hard as she thought. She just followed voices and the shining of flashlights. They were headed to a hill that overlooked a valley and overlooking the valley stood a portico from which a rusty red and white cross hung, missing its right arm. Attached to that Scarlet could make out the remains of a chapel. She went inside and found a crowd of teenagers gathered around several rocks sticking out from the ground, all bigger than the average person. Brown moss dried on the rocks as they jutted out, pointing diagonally to the night sky. Inside the circle of kids laid a rusty square hatch like an old tombstone.

The sleepers were allowed time to take in the sights and have a look around. The mud vine appeared as though it had both eaten the chapel and repaired it, leaving a basket weave like shape in the roof. Some moonlight came through, scattering about the crowd like several yellow flashlights.

Randall Webber, the senior leading the group, brought the sleepers and the other kids to the hatch. As far as Scarlet could tell, most of them appeared unimpressed and above it all. She tried to keep up the same fa├žade by twiddling her jeans through her fingers, relieving some of the nerves.

“Follow me, sleepers,” he said. “Liars, you know who you are. And be quick. The cops will head up soon.”

He opened the hatch to the Fallout, which wasn’t much taller or wider than Scarlet. Wet dirt dripped from the sides of the door as the turf around it ripped off.

One by one, they climbed down the shaky ladder.

Randall occasionally shined his light it into their eyes so that they’d have to dilate again in order to adjust to the dark. Henry Hatem, a particularly large kid got stuck in the middle, not being able to climb back up and too frightened to climb down.

“Liar! Liar! Liar!” the kids cried.

When Henry finally made it down, the kids cheered for him, more mockery than pride.

“Are you okay?” asked Scarlet.

He brushed dirt off himself. “I’m fine. Leave me alone.”

“Don’t worry,” said one of the girls beside her. “It’s nothing special or scary.” It was Louise Loving, who Scarlet knew from English class.

Scarlet envisioned the things they would say to her the next day. Liar, liar.

It reeked of worms and wet dirt, of old basements and raking leaves after rain. The line of kids crammed into the room the hallway lead to, covering their noses. Scarlet didn’t want to look soft, so she didn’t bother.

They came to a square room with another hatch in the middle. This was it, just one room with a hole in it? What kind of fallout shelter only held a few dozen people?

“Here is the spot where Katelyn Caster was left to die on prom night,” said Randall. “They say her ghost still haunts the pit. Who fucking knows. What we’re here for is to see who can remain the longest down there.”

He asked who was first and one stupid, brave kid raised his hand almost immediately. He climbed down the ladder and they shut the hatch. Scarlet looked closer at the hatch and saw that there was a z spray painted into it, resting within a circle, like the z on the buttons of her coat.

The first volunteer lasted about a minute before banging on the hatch to get up. He came up coughing and ran to a corner to puke. One by one, they climbed down and came back up almost as quickly. Henry – who was too big – stuck his head in instead and one of the kids tried to push him down headfirst. Another girl couldn’t stop screaming.

But the screaming lingered after she came out. It was faint, like a soft echo in her head, but nonetheless, she could hear it:

Don’t leave me down here.

“Enough!” said Scarlet. “Someone’s going to get hurt. I’ll go next.”

Maybe if she stayed down long enough, the kids would lose interest. That way she could find out where the voice was coming from, or at the very least, keep anyone else from getting hurt.

Scarlet looked down the hole. It was hard to tell just how far below the surface it went.

She stepped down the ladder and the hatch closed behind her.

She took out her phone and turned it on, the blue light illuminating the walls. She chipped away at some dirt built up in the tunnel to reveal a series of thin pipes that reminded her of a diagram of arteries.

She put the phone back in her pocket, leaving herself in the dark again, all except a flicker of white light coming from the bottom of the tunnel.

“Don’t leave me down here,” said a girl’s voice.

Scarlet jumped, but kept her grip on the ladder. She took her phone out again, attempting to shine light in the direction of the voice. The phone slipped from her hand and in attempting to catch it, her foot slipped from the ladder. Her back scratched against the muddy wall as she clawed the sides of the hole. She tried to stop herself from falling towards the strange sliver of light by bracing her feet against the wall, but it was too slippery. She shifted her weight forward in order to grab onto the ladder, but instead knocked her chin against it, going thunk-thunk-thunk all the way down.


  1. Hi James

    I think this version starts in a much better place, getting straight into the trip to the fallout shelter. I also really liked the section you added of Scarlet observing the other kids and their trips into the hole, which added suspense.

    However, you might want to consider reading the first few paragraphs out loud. For me, they come across as a bit 'choppy' and could maybe flow a little better?

    Are the balloons significant? I guess it's Scarlet's 17th birthday but it isn't terribly clear.

    I like the birds showing the path! Cool and atmospheric.

    Wasn't too sure about the next paragraph. I had to stop and think about it and it took me out of the story. Those who come alone are liars, but everyone comes with someone, but not Scarlet. It just felt a little too many negations?

    You introduce quite a few characters very close together. Are Randall, Henry and Louise all important to the later story? If not, I might be inclined to leave one or more of them nameless (Louise maybe?)

    Overall, I think this builds up a lot more suspense and I want to know what is at the bottom of the ladder!

    I'd also still like to know a bit more about Scarlet and how she's reacting emotionally to what is happening - at the moment, we see what she does and say, but only tiny glimpses of what she is thinking and feeling. I'd like to feel her fear when she loses her grip on the ladder, for example.

    Hope some of this helps.


  2. Really nice job, James! The descriptions in this draft seem so much more compelling, and the pacing is much better. I can tell you put a lot of work into the revisions, and it paid off. It’s more immersive now. My suggestions for the next round are similar to Becky’s. The beginning paragraphs do feel choppy (though I do like the details you’ve added). It’s like four mini-scenes/ideas in the first few paragraphs: the strangled boy, meeting Scarlet on the swing, the red balloons, throwing on the coat and heading toward the Fallout. I’d go one way or the other with those, either cutting them or adding more to flesh them out. Basically, whatever magic you worked on the scenes after she throws on the coat is what I’d recommend here. It seems like they might be important, so maybe just tying them together a bit more. Also, I agree that I’d like to get a little more of Scarlet's emotion.

    It’s looking good!

  3. Hi James!

    This revision has already made your pages so much stronger! I'm blown away! The imagery is beautiful and creepy, and I'm glad you cut the grandmother scene. Really coming together!

    However, I do wonder if we need to see Scarlet on the swing before she goes to the Fallout? It provides great images, yes, but that seems to be the only point. Could you start with her already at the Fallout, and intertwine the setting a touch more organically?

    I also agree with Adam and Becky that we could do with more from Scarlet, emotionally. Horror is so connected to FEELINGS, and Scarlet comes across as a tad bland. Also agree with Becky about the confusion of the 'liars' thing. I think that entire scene could do with a splash more atmosphere----you have a very 'as-is' way of writing, which is wonderful for clarity, and adding more character & atmospheric depth would really help to suck readers in.

    But congratulations on such a successful revision! I'm so excited to read your query to see what it's all about!!

    ~Mary :)

  4. You did such an amazing job revising!

    I'm going to counter some of the things in the other comments. I love that you begin on the swing and have her go alone through the forest. It shows us a lot about her character, that she's a bit of a loner, that she's had a birthday party and got balloons but nobody else is there to celebrate with her, or maybe they've gone home. And she's courageous and curious, two things that make for an interesting protagonist in a thriller. While I do think you need to slow down and add that deeper POV that I mentioned last week, I also think that showing these aspects of her character are important.

    I think the first line could be stronger, especially if you could bring us in with a creepy image to set the tone more immediately. Just by rearranging...

    The'd found the body tangled in the vines, as though it had come alive and strangled him. Mud vine got’em, they’ll say. Happens every year.

    Try to avoid the telling if you can, perhaps showing us that she'll be called a liar because she came alone. Maybe they yell it at her when she comes into the circle of kids and then show her not caring or thinking whatever he would.

    This part gets a bit confusing for me:
    Henry – who was too big – stuck his head in instead and one of the kids tried to push him down headfirst.[But what happened? Did his shoulders catch and he backed away?] Another girl couldn’t stop screaming. [Instead of a new paragraph, why not put this sentence with the next one to avoid the break in confusion?]
    But the screaming lingered after she came out. [Who is screaming here? The girl who was down there? Or is the faint screaming mentioned next coming from down the hatch? It says it's in her head, I'm assuming Scarlet's, but just take a few words here and clarify.] It was faint, like a soft echo in her head, but nonetheless, she could hear it:
    Don’t leave me down here.
    “Enough!” said Scarlet. “Someone’s going to get hurt. I’ll go next.”

    You've done an amazing job so far. Happy writing!

  5. First, congratulations on the new baby! And hot dog, James!! I love this revision. Great job! Just some more tweaking and it'll be perfect.

    I really like where you're starting it now. I think the swing does add to this opening and shows us Scarlet before she goes to the Fallout. But I think you could make it pop more. Show us her emotions and visceral reactions here. How does she feel about the boy? Does it make her sad or indifferent? Show us. Something like this {She swallowed the lump that formed every time she thought of the boy. Thought of his parents reaction after seeing their son like that.} What are those red balloons with the 17 on them for? Was it her b-day? As the others suggested, maybe give a quick thought about it. How she feels about them.

    Definitely need to sprinkle in emotion through deeper POV (stimulus-internalization-response) Adding some more visceral reactions (breath speeding up, the stomach clenching etc.) will help to add emotion. But do it sparingly.

    Also, we need some more of the senses. What sound do the blackbirds make when they come out of the trees? I'd like to hear the leaves crunch under her feet, the cold night air brush across her skin, the dripping of water, the bumpy rock under her fingertips. Do this sparingly as well or you'll risk being too melodramatic and descriptive.

    I have the same notations in my notes while reading that Heather mentioned about the liar thing and the Henry part and the screaming confusion. So I won't go into that.

    This sentence echoes - I'd reword it OR this might be a style thing. In which case, ignore me."They were headed to a hill that overlooked a valley and overlooking the valley stood a portico from which a rusty red and white cross hung, missing its right arm." To maybe something like this: "They were headed to a hill that overlooked a valley and at the top stood a portico from which a rusty red and white cross hung, missing its right arm." Or rearrange it differently. Or ignore me. :)

    Why does she chip at the wall? Can you give her thought on this?

    In the first sentence of the last paragraph, it says "Scarlet jumped" and I thought she actually jumped so I was confused until I figured out you meant she was startled. Maybe change "jump" to "Scarlet started" or something to make it clear she's not jumping down.

    I can't wait to see what you do this round and to read the query.

    Keep up the good work!


  6. James:

    Wow! I'm very impressed with your revision, here. Great work revising the beginning to give Scarlet more perspective. I think it's a great start and you should push even further. Every chance you get, show us how what's happening affects Scarlet, or how she affects what's happening - and why.

    Thanks for the focus on the hatch. It was much easier to follow the geography of the scene this time.

    I'm still not sure I understand what the events with the hatch have to do with the Song that Wakes the Dead. I kept waiting for there to be some kind of ritual that would bring me back to that part, but there wasn't. Maybe it's on the next page?!

    I actually liked the names of the side characters that are hanging out around the hatch. It made it feel small town, and gave me a feeling for the type of place this was.

    Since the mysterious voice calling to Scarlet from in the dark is the motivation for the next scene, I think you could beef it up. I agree it's a little confusing as to whether only Scarlet can hear it, whether it's a literal echo, or what. I want to know just a few words more about the actual nature of the voice, and then I really want to know what Scarlet thinks about it. Is this kind of phenomenon new to her? Is she scared? Is she curious? Worried? She obviously goes down to find the owner of the voice, but why does she do it alone instead of saying something like "Did anyone else hear that?" This is a great opportunity to put us in Scarlet's head, as well as use her reaction to this event to set a baseline for how this world works.

    (For example, if Scarlet were to say out loud, "I think I heard someone down there!" and the other kids were like "Of course you did, you're always hearing stupid ghost voices" we would learn something about both Scarlet and how she exists in the world.)

    Small stuff:

    - In the sentence "Midnight had come [...]" you write "would gather "there" but the fallout is no longer mentioned prior, so it's not clear where "there" is.

    - In the paragraph that begins "Scarlet stepped through the path" I felt some discord. It starts that she is afraid and nervous of the vines, but ends that she feels tall and powerful.

    - Keep a close eye on your tense. You change from past to present once in a while. (example: "Participants were called sleepers. Those that go alone are called liars" -- should be "Those that went/came alone were called liars.")

    Hope this all makes sense. Looking forward to seeing your next round and pitch!


  7. I think you did a fantastic job with this revision. Scarlet is more the focus of the story, and we definitely get a better sense of the setting. I love your last scene as well. I think you end your first five pages on a cliffhanger and it makes me want to keep reading to find out what's going to happen next.

    I also agree with Mr. Lee when he said he liked the focus being more on the Fallout hatch. It definitely helped with the exposition and it gave an eerie mood which I'm sure was the point of that. You have great use of connotative diction that helps us get that creepy vibe that's a must in horror.

    I would love to get insider Scarlet's head even more, get a sense of her voice, and see what she's thinking. Why is she going to the Song that Wakes the Dead? Does everyone go? Is it part of fitting in for her? I think you do a great job of giving a sense of how others perceive her, like when the kid says "I'm fine. Leave me alone." But what does she think about being treated that way? I think if you are a bit more explicit in those places, it will make her fall that much more exciting.

    I can't wait to read your full pitch! I really like this story a lot and I want to see where it goes!