Sunday, May 6, 2018

1st 5 Pages May Workshop -Prenatt

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

In the woods of Lethe County there is a vine the color of mud. In Muddy Creek, a child goes missing in those 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 was worried about his parents. 

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 repeated almost out loud:

It. Tommy Lee Wallace. 1990.

“Time to come inside now, dear. Curfew starts in five minutes,” called her grandmother from the back porch.

“Coming Gran!”

Scarlet went inside, keeping the book marked with her thumb. She set it on the nightstand along with three other books bent in the same fashion. Her grandmother watched a rerun of an old cop show as she sipped an amber colored diet soda. She sewed a piece of red fabric peacefully, humming one of her old folk tunes.

“Come here child, where I can see you. You always talk behind my back and make me crank my neck,” she said, her voice croaky, but comforting.

Scarlet sat on an ottoman and rested Gran’s sore feet upon her lap and rubbed them gently.

“Does that feel good?” asked Scarlet.

“I can’t feel it, but it feels good,” said Gran as She put the finishing touches on the red fabric. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

“What is it?” said Scarlet, feigning enthusiasm.

“Close your eyes and hold out your hands,” said Gran. Scarlet felt the fabric against her forearms and opened her eyes. “It was your mother’s. She wore it when she was your age.”

It was a red penny coat with a hood at the collar and golden buttons adorned with some sort of z symbol. Scarlet put it on and spun around.

“Oh, you look just like her,” said Gran with such delight it made Scarlet blush. She smiled, revealing grey teeth with several silver fillings. “That’s a witch’s jacket. Your mother was a witch, you know.”

Scarlet smiled. “It’s too much. You didn’t have to.”

“I know dear, but your mother really wanted you to have it. I had to sew it back up because it was so torn.” She said the word torn in a disgusted way, like it brought back some unpleasant memories.

Scarlet folded the jacket over her chest and moved back and forth as if cradling a baby. She kissed Gran on the forehead and said goodnight.

“Don’t you go out now. People get crazy this time of year,” said Gran, the usual warning.

“I won’t. Promise,” said Scarlet.

She went upstairs to her room and put the coat on the bed. Just like your mother. She sat at her vanity letting her curly, auburn hair fall to her face as she swayed to the rhythm of the guitar riff. She rubbed her hands across her grey, acne-scarred cheeks.

She stood up and threw her coat on. Gran was already asleep as she sneaked out the back door and locked it behind her. A flock of blackbirds swarmed into the trees. It was time for most birds to fly south, but this unique breed stayed in Lethe County through every season.

She looked past the swing set to the path. The thorns of the mud vine were visible now. The fall equinox was coming and the path through the woods revealed itself.

Every house on every street that bordered the woods was said to have a path like that and the mantra was always the same: don’t follow it alone, don’t follow it at night. The path behind Scarlet’s house lead to the Forget Me Fountain, where the water never ran out and you could see your reflection no matter the time of year.

Beyond that was the fallout.

Every year as Halloween season began the seniors of St. Francis gathered at the fallout to sing the Song That Wakes the Dead. Each participant was supposed to have an older companion escort them and teach them the song. Those that go alone are called liars.

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. The cross was missing its right arm. Attached to that Scarlet could make out the remains of the original St. Francis chapel, before it was there was a seminary or school. 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 as if to say, look. Inside the circle of kids there stood a rusty square hatch.

Scarlet stood awkwardly in the crowd, trying to get a good look at what was going on. “Welcome, sleepers and liars,” she heard someone say, and it didn’t take long for her to figure out that that meant newcomers. The sleepers were allowed time to take in the sights and have a look around. The mud vine had eaten up most of the chapel. Even the great hole in the roof looked like a basket weave. Some moonlight came through, scattering about the crowd like several yellow flashlights.

Randall Webber, the senior leading the group, gathered the group closer to the hatch. With the help of two other seniors, he opened the hatch to the Fallout. Wet dirt dripped from the sides of the door as the orange turf around it ripped off.

One by one, they climbed down the ladder, hoping it wouldn’t break as rust wiped off onto their hands.

There was another hatch between them and the challenge was presented. Whoever stayed down there the longest won.

Scarlet volunteered first.

She took her coat off, stepped down the ladder and the hatch closed behind her. 

It reeked of worms and wet dirt. 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 stretched out like arteries.

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

Scarlet dropped her phone and reaching for it, fell to the bottom.

It stung underneath her chin where she’d hit the ladder. She ran her tongue along the roof of her mouth, feeling the burn of blood where a piece of it had chipped off.

Scarlet crawled towards the voice, finding her way through some kind of tunnel.

Water soaked through her tennis shoes. She had stepped into some sort of small pond.

“Don’t leave me!”

She felt around the wet floor, her hands grazing across what felt like waterlogged skin. “Hold on,” she answered. “I’ll be there in a minute just let my find my—”

An arm reached out from the water and grabbed her wrist, pulling the rest of its body up with it. A pale face met hers.

It was just a girl, begging for help.

Whimpering, the girl said, “Don’t leave me.”

“Alright,” said Scarlet. “I won’t leave you.”


  1. Hi, James! I'm looking forward to working with you over the next few weeks. I like what you have here. I've written a bit of horror myself, so hopefully I can be helpful.

    The elements seem to be there for a scary story: the mud vine, the penny coat, the fall into the hatch. Those thing make the reader want to know what's going to happen next.

    I think about horror as tightening the screws on the reader. Build, build, build the tension and then start over building the tension in the next chapter/scene. Think of ways to increase the pressure. You can give the reader a break, but not in the middle of the tension building because then you have to start from scratch to build again.

    I'd look at the very beginning and see if you can start with a bang. What if Scarlet is picturing that boy being strangled by the vines? She's reading about the incident in a book, which is a good tool for exposition, but if she's picturing what may have happened, then the reader can see/hear/smell the scene and what a horrible ordeal it must have been. Lingering in the detail is what increases the sense of dread. Or maybe just starting with Song that Wakes the Dead part starts things with a bang.

    Here's another example: "Scarlet dropped her phone and reaching for it, fell to the bottom." There's not enough time for the reader to worry about her falling. Worrying about the fall is more scary than actually falling. So, maybe she drops her phone. She looks down and realizes how far it is. She knows it's risk, but she has to have her phone. She leans down. Dirt starts to crumble away. Just a little farther. Inches away. She falls, etc.

    So, my main suggestion is to think about what increases the tension and amplify that and think about what cuts the tension where or if that fits in. Things like getting the coat are important, but it probably fits in best right after a big scene has resolved itself, giving the reader a quick break as you start to tighten the screw again.

  2. Hi, James!

    Oooh, creepy creepy. Already, your writing has a wonderful cadence, peppered with eerie images. Considering this is only the first five pages, I can imagine how these strengths only escalate throughout your MS! Great job!

    My first comment is a bit nitpicky--what's so unusual about a mud-coloured vine? The idea of it coming alive and killing someone is fantastically dark, but I didn't see why the colour was used as a defining detail.

    Also, I really wanted more depth when it came to Scarlet's voice. I didn't get sense of her character. Phrases like "Scarlet was worried about his parents" carry little weight, and I wonder if they could be expanded to show more about who she is?

    The scene with her Gran was slightly uncanny and fit the mood well, but I think their dynamic can be used to deepen Scarlet more. That, and I wonder if (key word if, since it's totally up to you here) whether we need both the gran and the fallout scene in this space? Drawing out one or the other might let you build a firmer atmosphere, and like Adam suggested, 'tighten the screws'.

    So yes, overall, I just wanted to know more about who Scarlet was and what her motivations were :) certainly room for more creepiness, too! And again, perhaps reconsider what this first scene is 'about' and where the emphasis needs to be. You have very strong writing, and I'm excited to see where it goes!

    ~Mary :)

  3. Hi James! Thanks for sharing this creepy, dark story. I get a strong sense of the modern fairy-tale here (Little Red Riding Hood falls down the rabbit hole?) which I think is a genre that's almost infinite in potential.

    The first thing that stuck out to me is that this is detailed as YA, but to me, reads much more middle grade. This might be because I have a hard time understanding how old Scarlet. Since the first age that is mentioned is a middle school boy, my mind puts her in middle school. Then, Scarlet doesn't say much, except to her Gran, so it's hard to guess her age from the voice.

    I would like to see more about who Scarlet is. There are some great opportunities for reflection, but as it is, Scarlet is looking at a lot of things and telling us a lot of things, but we aren't actually learning anything about her.

    Another thing I thought got lost was the idea that the equinox opens the path into town. It's the Reason Today is Different, right? So pound that home a little bit further.

    Some of the setting and events felt out of time and place to me. I had a hard time understanding where we were and how much time was passing. When Scarlet is looking at the path and describing the fallout, it wasn't clear to me at first that she had actually taken the path to the fallout.

    I was really confused with the sequence of events when Scarlet volunteers to go down the hatch. I would really like to see more of Scarlet's motivation. It's clearly scary down there, so why does she volunteer? What is driving her? This is a great opportunity to tell us more about Scarlet as a character.

    Overall, I think you have an interesting world with a lot of potential. I think these pages show that you were feeling out that world while you were writing. Now that you have a stronger idea, it could really benefit the manuscript to go back and streamline the events so that each scene has a specific narrative purpose. This is the scene where Gran gives Scarlet the cloak. This is the scene where Scarlet goes to the Fallout. This is the scene where Scarlet goes down the hatch. Make sure that in each scene, the narrative intent is the main focus, and that it drives the plot to the next scene in an easy to understand transition.

    Looking forward to reading your next round!


    1. Those are some great critiques. As I said in another reply to some comments, this was cut from 10 pages so I lost a lot of stuff, but I suppose I don't have to have that inciting incident on page 5? I just thought it best to condense as much as possible and make sure the reader knew basically what was going on and what this would elude to for the rest of the novel, delivering the premise, etc as soon as possible.



  4. Wow! Your writing is so fluid and the imagery is amazing. I love all the tiny tricks you pulled to really get the mood across (A flock of blackbirds swarmed into the trees. It was time for most birds to fly south, but this unique breed stayed in Lethe County through every season.) You are building such a cool world. There are witches, a fallout shelter, a creepy vine, mysterious deaths, yet the kids still have cell phones...all so intriguing!

    I did find parts of this a bit "info-dumpy" for lack of a better word. I know the instinct to orient and explain the world to the reader is strong, especially in an intricate one like this, but I really started tuning in more when I was in a scene. The scene with gran, the scene with the Fallout shelter and the other teenagers..that was where I was most engaged. I could do without some of the "here's how the world works" information because I think you could weave that in naturally as it comes.

    I like what some of the other authors said about starting this off a little differently. Maybe a good starting point would be when she sneaks out of the house or when she volunteers first. I also agree with Mr. Lee when he mentioned that we need to see more of Scarlet. Let's get a sense of her personality. Obviously she's adventurous, but I found myself wanting to know her motivation. Also I think seeing her interact with the other kids her age would be so telling about her personality. Just because we're in close third person doesn't mean we can't get a glimpse inside what she's thinking about them, or what she wants.

    Overall I really love the direction you're going with this. It's such a great premise and a subtly creepy mood that builds as you go. I can't wait to read the second round of revisions!

    1. Excellent advice! I had more voice and built up much slower, so this was actually cut from 10 pages to 5, but perhaps I could afford to stretch it out more and not worry about the inciting incident happening by page 5.

  5. Hi James

    Loving the mood of your story. It feels very dark Little Red Riding Hood, which is intriguing.

    My thoughts mainly echo what the others have said above. My main two comments would be:

    1) I'm not sure this is quite the right place to start. Perhaps start slightly later in the scene with Granny or even with her creeping out of the house. The backstory / scene setting could come as Scarlet is trudging through the creepy woods? You could even perhaps flash back to getting the cloak as she worries about not tearing it on brambles?
    2) I want to know more from Scarlet so I can connect to her as a character - hear her voice a little more through speech / thoughts. At the moment, I'm not quite sure who she is.

    Hope that helps a little.


  6. Many people have already given you so much to work with, I hate to add more to it in a way. So I'll try to keep it simple.

    The main challenge I'm leaving you with is to add voice and round out her character. I agree it sounds like an MG character. It the tone, the attitude, how she moves, her previous experiences--try to get into her head and notice what she would notice, mumble what she would mumble to herself, say only what she would say, how she would say it. Have her internalize with a deeper POV that'll give us only her feelings. Maybe she has an injury she thinks about. Maybe she's got a scar from a previous accident that she scratches.

    And overall, just slow down. So often we feel like we have to get so much information into this first few pages that we lose the power of a more simple hook, and you have loads of those. You're talented with all the tension and creep factors, so choose the best ones and keep the others for another time.

    You're a great writer!

  7. Hey James!

    You really know how to write some good imagery. I really am intrigued with this story.

    I write both MG and YA and feel the beginning of this reads like a MG. It could be because it mentions a middle school boy at the beginning or because middle grade is notorious for having a grandparent/uncle/other adult guiding them. The voice does sound younger, but it's hard to tell because we need more internal thoughts from Scarlett. I think your story should start with her sneaking out. You don't need grandma here. You can introduce her later and you can sprinkle in the information at the beginning as the story unfolds.

    From the start, I felt like I was at an open house and the realtor rushed me through without letting me look at the details. Slow it down some. Show her on the path to the Fallout. It's mentioned that it's dangerous to someone alone and I got excited thinking "oh, we're going to see some creepy action now," and then I was let down. You missed a great opportunity to freak your reader out. Ha! Then once we're in the Fallout, we don't get to see who's all there. They're in moonlight, there's a lot of flashlights around, surely she can make out many of the teens there, especially the one beside her. Show us who she's with. Show us how they're nervous. Show us how she's nervous. Draw out the tension especially when she's in the hatch. You should show her struggling before she falls.

    Which brings me to show not tell. You tell us that Randall gathers the teens around the hatch. How does he do it? You tell us one by one they go down the ladder hoping it won't break. We should only know what Scarlet knows and feels in this POV. So show us how the other kids go down the ladder and their reaction.

    What makes Scarlet volunteer to go down the hatch? It seems really scary (I'm a chicken and you'd have throw me in there.) and she's brave to do it, but I have no idea why she does. It could be as simple as her thinking the others are babies and she's fearless and will do anything. Whatever it is, it must match her character. And you should probably make sure it goes with her character flaw.

    Go deeper with your POV. Use action, reaction, and thought to show us what's going on and how your character is feeling. For instance, here I take your sentence "Scarlet volunteered first" and make deeper POV:

    Scarlet's hand shot up. "I'll go first." There's no way she was going to wait in line and listen to the others' screams before her. It'd just freak her out more. *It can't be that scary. Can it?*

    That's probably horrible, but I hope you get what I mean.

    The word "crazy" should be deleted. It's ableist and we should try to avoid using words like this. Here's a link if you want more information on it:

    You can replace it with words like absurd, ridiculous, and outrageous.

    I do love what I've read so far of this story. The cadence is lovely. You're a wonderful writer and I know the revisions are going to be great, and I can't wait to read them!!!!