Sunday, June 3, 2018

1st 5 Pages June Workshop- Oh

Name: Christine Oh
Genre: Young Adult (Fantasy - Time Travel)
Title: The Handmaiden

A long time ago, there once lived a king who loved his queen very much.  She was noble, wise, and above all else, loved her people.  The king often deferred to her judgment much to the dismay of his royal advisors and thus, a plan was hatched amongst the court to remove the queen by death.

The queen soon learned of the plot and trusting no one but her closest handmaiden, she devised a plan that would expose the conspirators while keeping the king’s trust.  

On the eve of the attack, the queen switched places with her handmaiden but the queen was betrayed by her most faithful--

“Excuse me.”

A brusque voice cut through Rebecca’s attention and her head snapped up in response.  She turned away from the inscription to see a group of anxious American tourists, all angling to take a picture of the display Rebecca was clearly blocking. 

“Oh, sorry!”  Rebecca sidestepped to the right and felt the wave of elderly women usher past her to the display.  Amidst the posing and loud chatter, Rebecca continued to study the subjects beneath the glass display from the corner of the crowd.  Despite sustaining her attention for the past half hour, Rebecca couldn’t explain what was so alluring about three scrolls that were barely legible. The whole exhibition made her feel uneasy from the start, but as Rebecca made her way through to the end, the scrolls gave her pause.    

Rebecca hadn’t been in Korea for more than a week before she happened upon the exhibition in her father’s hometown.  After her father’s funeral in Seattle, Rebecca and her mother boarded a plane back to his hometown, her father’s ashes in tow.  Spending a grueling week paying respects to relatives she hardly knew to dealing with funeral arrangements in a land with foreign traditions, Rebecca finally felt like she could breathe once the last far-traveling relative said good-bye.  

With her mother resting at their hotel, Rebecca decided to take a walk to clear her mind.  She didn’t get very far before a poster for the local exhibition stopped her in her tracks.

The poster was a black and white photo of a young woman wearing a simple Korean dress.  Her hanbok gave no indication of the woman’s social class; the dress lacked embroidery and the fabric was made from cotton not silk.  The woman featured was not someone the majority of Korean population would deem beautiful.  Her eyes were not almond shaped, her skin was pockmarked, and her forehead was too wide.  And at first glance, Rebecca didn’t think much of the woman, let alone imagine her to be royalty until she noticed the ornate pins tucked in the mounds of hair that was braided and piled on top of her head.  

What struck Rebecca was the young queen’s expression.  She knew that expression well; she’d seen it written plainly across her dad’s face many times when he was on the cusp of getting angry.  The picture captured the young queen defiant – her brow was furrowed and eyes narrow.  Her lips were pressed into a straight, firm line as though she were biting back her tongue.  In Rebecca’s attempt to alleviate her grief, she’d forgotten all about that face until her walk and found her father’s expression staring back at her in black and white.  Her stomach turned as she saw her father’s eyes peer down at her.

Rebecca always knew that her father was different.  Unlike most Korean men, Rebecca’s father was delighted to have a daughter, and her mother would often tell stories of his excitement over Rebecca even before she was born.  Her father often credited the absence of daughters in their family lineage as the reason why he was so tickled to have a girl.  Rebecca knew her mother always wanted a son but was unable to have any children after her.  

At home, her father never spoke to her in English.  Even when she wouldn’t know the word, he would explain to her in Korean until she understood.  Instead of making Rebecca take piano lessons like the rest of the Korean-American kids she knew, Rebecca learned Korean traditional dance.  Every Saturday since she was eight, her father would drive Rebecca two hours each way so she could take her dance class.  Rebecca was secretly relieved she would never have to practice scales or audition for the local symphony like her friends, but she did wonder why her parents never bothered.  One morning, she asked her father why he was so insistent on dance class.

Her father paused for a moment before he replied and Rebecca surmised her father had never thought much about it either.

“I suppose it’s because your grandfather often spoke of how clever a woman was if she could play a gayageum.”

Rebecca’s father often spoke of tradition and how strict her grandfather was on specific Korean customs.  Although her father wasn’t as severe, he still made sure those traditions were passed down to her.  Speaking and reading Korean fluently was a must, how to respect your elders were a given, and even how to cut fruit when you’re the youngest at the table had to be properly learned and done well.

Both her dad and Rebecca had a sweet tooth, so it was their ritual to get ice cream when her mother would make dinner too spicy or salty.  

“It’s because your mother’s people are from Jeolangdo,” her dad would joke as they gulped down water after taking a few bites from her mother’s specialty Korean dishes.  “They always add too much to everything to overcompensate for the fact they are from the countryside.”  

Still fanning her mouth, Rebecca’s mom would often swat at her dad’s head with a dishcloth and glare at him while she went around refilling everyone’s water glasses for the third time.

After ordering their cones, Rebecca and her dad would sit on the bench outside Molly Moon’s and he would always start the story of the doomed queen and the vengeful handmaiden who betrayed her.  He’d been telling her this story as long as she could remember, and he always repeated the story as if reading it from a script.  When Rebecca was younger, she would always ask for the tale but as she got older, she would groan whenever her father would start.  

“It’s important that you listen, Ahgah.  This is our history.  You can’t forget where you come from even though you call yourself an American.”

“But you tell the same story over and over again and it isn’t even about our family.  It’s just something that Harabuji would tell you when you were a little boy, right?”

Rebecca’s dad lightly chucked her under her chin as he always did when she was giving him sass and continued to tell the tale.

After Rebecca got her driver’s license and found more excuses to not be home, the trips to get ice cream became less frequent.  But when her father got sick, he told her tell the story one last time.  She held his hand in the hospital room as he told her the tale of the doomed queen and though it had been a few years, Rebecca found herself reciting the tale along with her father.

And it wasn’t until Rebecca reached the display with the three scrolls, did she read the story again since her father’s death.  But there was something wrong.  In her father’s version of the story, there were four.


  1. Your premise is intriguing, and I love the idea of the story Rebecca’s father told her coming full circle to an exhibit after his death.

    I didn’t realize until I’d finished the sample, then reread the beginning, that Rebecca is actually reading the first three paragraphs at the exhibit. I’m guessing you did this intentionally, but I’m wondering if it would help readers to know that up front—to give it some context, you know.

    I like that you immediately build mystery around the scrolls. And I wish that I could see them more clearly. Maybe add a few details about how they look. When we find out the two stories conflict on the number of scrolls, that’s the hook that makes me want to keep reading!

    You spend a good amount of time on backstory with her father. It’s all great stuff, supported with detailed and interesting examples that show vs tell us about Rebecca’s relationship with her father. However, the amount of backstory, especially in your first few pages, might be a bit much. Maybe see if you can keep the present action and mystery going a bit more, and only dribble in bits of backstory at a time.

    When you flash back to what happened earlier, I’m pretty sure it should be in past perfect tense (e.g., “…Rebecca and her mother had boarded a plane…”).

    My favorite part is when Rebecca sees the poster and recognizes her father’s expression in the woman’s face. It’s mysterious and intriguing. You might consider trying this scene as the opening.

    Good luck with the workshop. Look forward to seeing your revisions!

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  4. I really like different takes on classic fairy tales, so this opening caught my interest. I’d like to know more about the exhibition she’s at and a little more about the scrolls sooner though. Is this a national exhibit of a newly discovered antiquity? Or is it in an eerie Ripley’s type place that’s meant to draw Rebecca in?

    Your big reveal at the end that there are 4 scrolls instead of 3 doesn’t come across as striking as it might without knowing a little more background about the scrolls and what might be in that 4th scroll.

    You give a lot of good detail about Rebecca’s relationship with her father but it might be better to parcel this out over several chapters. We need to know that they were close and that the princess looks like her father, but some of the details of Rebecca’s training in Korean traditions could probably come later.

    There are some minor typos and areas where you could tighten the writing. I’ll give two examples:

    The woman featured was not someone the majority of (the) Korean population would deem beautiful.

    Besides the missing the you could probably write it as The woman was not someone most Koreans would deem beautiful.

    But when her father got sick, he told her (tell) the story one last time. She held his hand in the hospital room as he told her the tale of the doomed queen and though it had been a few years, Rebecca found herself reciting the tale along with her father.

    You might want to avoid repeating phrases like told her the tale.

    Good luck, I think you’ve got a promising idea.

  5. This is interesting. I like the close relationship Rebecca had with her father and the story he told her. And the fact that she recognized her father's face in the poster.

    I was a bit confused at the beginning. At first I thought that was the start of YOUR story then I realized it was Rebecca reading a plague (or remembering the story her father told her). Maybe you can try to make that stand out a bit more.

    You give us a lot of information at one time with the flashback, which can work in some cases. It held my attention so the backstory wasn't a problem with me.

  6. Hey there! I love the premise and this is a strong start. I was a bit confused in the beginning and had to re-read a few times, so this is an instance where a little clarity goes a long way. Even a line or two to be sure the reader understands what is happening with narration.

    Honestly, I'm okay with backstory as long as it serves the story and moves it forward, but I wasn't sure how important some of those sections were and it made me want to skim. So maybe, if they're necessary, give them a little more punch so I'll read and remember, then skip the rest.

    The ending could be tightened just a bit because I appreciate what you're trying to do with it, but like others have said, I'd need to know more about the scrolls and why a 4th is so important to the story before it would mean anything to me.

    Overall, great job!

  7. First of all, thanks for putting your work out there for evaluation – this is, of course, a seemingly obvious part of publishing, but it is also quite nerve-wracking, so congrats for taking that leap!

    Before I dive in, I like to give a short explanation about my workshop philosophy so that you know where I’m coming from. One of my writing teachers, Sands Hall, likes to say when we approach another writer’s piece, we must assume that this writer has put everything where it is on purpose. Thus, it is not our job as the responders to try to make this piece of writing what we would want it to be, but rather to ask questions that allow it to become the best version of the author’s intention. I do this with a couple of first steps. I am going to tell you two things I think you’re doing well – sometimes, just knowing where the work shines allows other parts of the work to rise to that level of sparkle. Then, I’ll give you two things to consider for revision, usually through two questions to ask yourself while you’re revising. Okay, let’s get started:

    That last line is a zinger – “In her father’s version, there were four.” POW. I’m hooked. You are doing a wonderful job of pulling me into this story and world. I think this speaks to the power of your overall concept – the father has died, you’ve given us an interesting world, a fish out of her American water, a possible royal connection. Some excellent plotting already.

    You give us some beautiful connection between father and daughter already – the ice cream trips, the story. These kind of details sparkle.

    Two things to consider for the next round:
    I had the same first instinct as Elisa – I thought that initial story was your story, your voice…and not a plaque the character was reading. While formatting by an awesome interior book designer can ultimately fix this, would you consider starting us with her voice – putting us right into the moment she sees it. Let us sit in her body and experience before we read the plaque? Something that helps me with my openings is imagining reading them out loud to an audience and seeing if I might have to explain something. If I have to explain off the bat, I might want to save it for after the opening paragraph…

    This is a potentially gorgeous world – could you give us more of it up front? When she “decided to take a walk” – could we see this, smell what she’s smelling or see something specific to set us into her sightline?

    Looking forward to seeing what you do next!

  8. Hi Christine!

    I am so excited about your book! What a cool, cool idea. I love it.


I especially love what you’re doing with your opening here. It’s very cinematic, and the abrupt pull out from what she’s reading in the scrolls is really great. But to make it work, you really do have to transition us out better.

    It wouldn’t take but a few words or sentences tucked into what you already have. Slow down the moment she’s pulled out and really fill in the details so we can “see” the moment, the display case and the exhibit all around them. It’s okay to take the time to place us there during that awkward moment. (You could also optionally put the part she’s reading in italics to separate it out from the regular text.)


I also really love the way you’ve established the relationships between her and her parents. But I think the way you kind of zip past her father's death and their memorial for him in Korea takes away the emotion of it. There’s potential to really have an emotional impact and cement your reader’s affection for Rebecca by showing us how much she misses her dad. That she sees his face in the face on the display—write that in a way that tears at our hearts the way it breaks hers. Let it be a natural extension of her grief that drives her into the exhibit. Maybe she doesn’t want to get out of the way when the tourists approach the scrolls, because she feels an intimacy with that story—maybe she feels that it belongs to her and her dad now.

    (Alternatively, you may consider rewriting these pages so that we experience the memorial with her, follow her in her escape, and experience her seeing her dad's face in the exhibit picture. Show us how she's compelled to walk in, how she finds the scrolls, etc. As much as I love your cinematic beginning, I think it may be worth it, even just as an exercise, to write a more linear version to see if it's more impactful than what you have now. I suspect it'll be a stronger beginning, and we both might love it even more than the device you're using now.)

    Regardless of what you choose to do, I really want to feel what she’s feeling, and a lot of that interiority is missing.

    On a smaller note, take the time to tighten up some of your prose and review your comma and tense rules, etc., so that nothing can distract us from your amazing story. For example, the second to last paragraph uses a lot of repetitive phrases and words. And the first paragraph has some awkward wording. I’d suggest that you try reading it aloud to make sure the prose flows well. 

And finally, the way these pages end is great, but it needs to be set up better to give it the most possible impact. I LOVE the idea of a missing scroll. It’s brilliant and provides unending tension right from the start. But it only works if her father tells her about the scrolls when he tells her the story and by extension, your readers know that the scrolls are part of the story from the time we know that he tells her the story, not just at the end. It’s an easy fix. Just adding something like:

    Rebecca and her dad would sit on the bench outside Molly Moon’s and he would always tell her about a set of ancient scrolls that contained the story of a doomed queen and the vengeful handmaiden who betrayed her.

    I hope this all helps a little! Let me know if you have any questions and good luck with your revision. I really am looking forward to reading this again!