Sunday, July 8, 2018

1st 5 Pages July Workshop- Toran

Name: Katherine Toran
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Persephone’s Waltz


At my first glance, Ysabel looked too short to be a Holy Maiden. The Bride of the Sun God was almost as petite as a dwarf or a halfling, but her straight-backed teenage frame exuded the force of a grown woman. She was so beautiful that even looking upon her face seemed like blasphemy. I was in awe.

I’d almost forgotten the pain in my shoulder until jolted by the lack of it. Standing on her tip-toes, Ysabel withdrew her hand. I pulled aside my bandages. The bruise which had once spread all the way to my elbow had vanished, leaving only a crust of blood. My heart did a somersault. This miracle proved the Holy Maiden was truly the virtuous master I’d been looking for. Belatedly, I said, “Thank you.”

Her smile spread wider. Each movement flowing like a fairy descending to earth, she sat down in a plaid armchair which dwarfed her. Her oak desk was large enough for use by a whole platoon and covered in paperwork. “Blessings of the Sun God be upon you, Alzira. All I have is yours, but this humble servant would not want to keep you from a divine calling to rest.”

I had no idea what she’d just said, but it sounded as lovely as her. Black curls cascaded over her frilled white dress. Ears, nose, and mouth alike were all delicately doll-like. She wore no jewelry or blush. Ambiguously brown skin powdered to flawlessness and hazel eyes made it hard to pin down which foreign country she’d come from. Likely mixed-race. A woman like me couldn’t compare to her: tall, muscular, and bronze-skinned with hawk-like angular features and silken black hair shaved to a crew cut. My eyes had been described as “phoenix eyes” by men who wanted to flatter me and “beady” by those who did not. The contrast inspired no jealousy in me. I’d never wanted to be the princess of the story; I wanted to be the knight who protected the princess.

The Dragon Maidens’ quartermaster, Suzette, stepped forward from her place by the bronze door and whispered, “She says you can skip dinner if you’re too tired from your journey.”

“Oh! Uh, yes, Your Holiness, I already ate on the road. Thank you. Thank you so much.” I flexed my healed arm, still wonder-struck. The Holy Maiden’s office bedazzled me, from the skylight etched in gold to the lady saints busy dying gruesome deaths on the mahogany panel walls. Curtains framed a golden sun decoration and a huge world globe, half of it whited out for unexplored regions.

Holy Ysabel’s gaze fixed on my headscarf. “In this is a place of women, you need not feel constrained by modesty. My Dragon Maidens answer to no man except the Sun God. Please feel as unhindered and free in your dress as Saint Olthea who leapt off a mountain to her demise and, of course, into the embrace of the Sun God.”

“I wear this for my own beliefs. I hope that’s not a problem.” Defensiveness entered my voice as I tugged my headscarf. The splash of red persimmons added a touch of style to my leather armor. Arahasnor, the Holy City, had representatives from every sect of the Sun God around the world, but I’d quickly learned that sharing space didn’t make them any more tolerant of differences in doctrine.

By the Sun God, for a girl barely past eighten, Ysabel had the piercing gaze of a tiger. Then she smiled, and it was like watching the sun rise. “I pray that I have caused the lamb in my charge no discomfort. Suzette, please show our beloved guest to her room, as the Sun God wills.”

“Don’t you need to ask me anything else?” As a probationary bodyguard for the Holy Maiden, I’d expected a list of duties, or a test, or at least something more than a dig at my clothing.

“The Sun God has eternal time in His omnipotent wisdom, but His humble servant is ever-busy. Happily, my own limited mortal insight foresees that you too will find labor in the near future, wherever the Sun God may call you—near or perhaps very, very far.” Ysabel snapped her fingers. Suzette placed a hand on my arm and led me out of the office.

“What does that mean?” I half-whispered.

“It means you won’t be sticking around very long, spy,” Suzette replied, propelling me forward with a bit too much force. Dumbfounded, I didn’t resist.

I mean, she was right about me being a spy, but how had she known?

The palace of the Holy Maiden Ysabel had appeared strictly functional from the outside: a granite wall which had clearly seen battle, iron triangular caps and arrow slits on the towers, and metal spikes obscuring the rose-and-chalice flag of the Sun God. The ornateness of the interior caught me off guard. Gold and silver etched the windows, forming flowering vines down the rosy walls. The corners were packed with presents and donations from around the world, a few gifts still unwrapped. This place must have more wealth than ten villages. The arched corridor reminded me of a tiger’s mouth, with marble pillars for teeth and the red silk carpet for a tongue, and me the morsel of meat about to be swallowed.

Stopping, Suzette turned a copper handle to reveal a sea-green poster bed framed by royal blue curtains. A pillar held a bust of Saint Alzira, my namesake. I had my own writing desk and fireplace. The swirling turquoise carpet was in the style of my homeland Nang, another very kind personalized touch. Painted angels peeked down from the ceiling—human, dwarf, elf, and halfling alike. Sitting on the purple-covered table, my weather-beaten leather satchel looked like a peasant who’d snuck into a royal ball. So much gold covered the armchair that I’d hardly dare sit on it.

There was even a weapons rack, where I placed my scimitar. As my hands brushed the chains wrapped around the hilt, I felt a pang in the left side of my chest, reminding me of my Oath. I’d sworn a magic-enforced vow that if I drew this blade before I found a true master, then my heart would stop.

“You can ring any time tomorrow morning when you’re ready for breakfast. I’ll come by to guide you to the dining hall,” Suzette said, turning away.

“Wait!” I tried to marshal my thoughts. “About the spy thing.” I gulped. A dizzying array of floral scents wafted off Suzette. The curly-hair blonde in her bejeweled blue dress intimidated me with her perfectly tweaked eyebrows and plump red lips. I didn’t know how to talk to a posh beauty.

The vicious intrigue of the eleven church sects swallowed spies whole. Would they believe me if I told them how badly I wanted to switch sides? My palms dampened. I had to do the right thing and be truthful, or my dream since childhood would be over before it had begun. “It’s true. Patriarch Jiohnanny asked me to become Holy Ysabel’s bodyguard in order to send him reports on her movements. He, uh, even implied I might be asked to sabotage the Dragon Maidens. But I would never do anything so dishonorable. I only agreed because he would have had me assassinated if he found out I actually wanted to join your World Games team.”


  1. First, I have to say, I love, love, love the line about her wanting to be a knight instead of a princess! Fascinating world of the story here.

    Characters are fascinating too. You also do a nice job with language. Really nice start here! I'm excited to see more!

    On revision, my biggest comment is to slow down a bit. I want to grasp onto the main character a bit more. Your main character is highly observant, describing all she sees, but I want to be in her head more. What does she want? Why does she want it? How do you show that?

    I also wanted to be able to picture the scene a bit more, especially early on. Overall, I felt myself working really hard, trying to figure out who was who. As you go through, consider streamlining the language a bit. Read the work aloud and ask yourself where the language might be better trimmed or simplified.

    Where do you tell versus where do you show? Where do you feel the description might get in the way of pushing the story forward. Make a conscious decision about what you choose to describe - what your main character sees.

    I want to hear your main character's voice a bit more. She's clever and observant. Let's hear her personality and internal thoughts.

    So much potential. Keep going!!!

    1. This comment was made by Laurie Stolarz - not sure why my name didn't come out. Thanks for the read!

  2. Katherine,

    Thank you for sharing your first few pages with us. What an interesting beginning. I was immediately hooked, when the narrator revealed she always “wanted to be the knight who protected the princess.” A strong female character, like Alzira, will certainly resonate with modern readers.

    The world you’ve begun to reveal to us is clearly one of beauty and intrigue. I particularly liked the comparison and imagery in the following sentence: “The arched corridor reminded me of a tiger’s mouth, with marble pillars for teeth and the red silk carpet for a tongue, and me the morsel of meat about to be swallowed.” It gave us a glimpse of the danger in which Alzira finds herself, especially after she’s outed as a spy, albeit and unwilling one.

    And, what a juicy conflict that is. So exciting, I almost wish the suspense of how she would deal with the reveal would be pulled out of her with a little more struggle, time, and emotional upheaval. Could she admire Ysabel, and all that she stands for, without (honestly) serving her right away? Perhaps the plot needs to move along for another reason, like the World Games team? If so, ignore me. I haven’t read the entire book, but what I have read makes me hope that someday I will. So, I’d say you’re headed in the right direction.

    Best wishes,


  3. Hi Katherine,

    Thanks so much for sharing your work! I was super impressed by your beautiful imagery and kickass world building. Also the characterization of Ysabel… wow! Very fun character. Your “I had no idea what she’d just said, but it sounded as lovely as her” made me stop and clap like a seal.

    My biggest critique has to do with ‘weight.’ Really important scenes or moments need more lines, more description, to make them seem important. This draws out the important details, like Ysabel’s miracle, and makes them stand out to the reader. You do a wonderful job of this with the spy revelation, especially the ‘I mean, she was right about me being a spy…” Adding more or new lines to key details and revelations makes the whole piece stronger.

    I also think it would help to ground us more in the space, and why Alzira is there in the first place. Just a quick sentence earleir explaining why she’s standing there. I also think you have a tad too many nouns. This goes back to the weight issue – pick the most important nouns, and stick to those, and maybe even explain them.

    Lastly, your dialogue is on point. It’s very modern and real, which grounds the more high fantasy setting. I’m never confused by dialogue, which is so so important in this sort of fantasy.

    Great work! I’m a sucker for a good religious order, and even more so for spy stories. I’d definitely read this.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Katherine,

    Wow, your first line is a stunner. I love how it pits the mundane against the mystic! You have some really fantastic and engaging descriptions that really immersed me (i.e. "gruesome deaths on the mahogany panel walls") in the world right away and gave me a great sense of character and setting. I particularly like the areas where the description helps to define Alzira's character and experience—for example, "a granite wall which had clearly seen battle, iron triangular caps and arrow slits on the towers". This sentence tells me a lot about her simply from the things that she notices (and the things she doesn't!).

    A couple of suggestions: I'd love to have you show some more dialogue (both inner and outer)—you tell us what Alzira is feeling and thinking, but I want to get even further into her head. Show us! How is she feeling and how is that manifesting in her thoughts and physical body? I would also suggest experimenting with spreading out the information/exposition with some more dialogue/action, just to break it up a little.

    Speaking of action... she's a SPY! What a cool conflict for this opening scene. You throw that revelation in there, but then immediately go into a paragraph of setting description. I desperately wanted you to expand on that central scene conflict—what are the reactions? Wouldn't it be super dramatic on all sides? I feel like you could really play that up throughout the whole scene and ratchet up the tension.

    So much great stuff in there, I can't wait to see how it evolves!! Keep up the fantastic work.


  6. Hello Katherine!

    So glad you put yourself out there and entered your work for critiques. I started out by getting critiques here years ago. Thank you for sharing your first five pages. I agree with what the others have said in their reviews. Also, I’m very intrigued by this world and your characters.

    There is a lot to love in this sample. Some of your descriptions took my breath away. Like, "The arched corridor reminded me of a tiger’s mouth, with marble pillars for teeth and the red silk carpet for a tongue, and me the morsel of meat about to be swallowed.” So good!

    I did, however, feel bogged down by too much description and information. You might want to cut back on that in the beginning and slowly reveal things as the reader gets more immersed in your world. I'm not drawn in with the opening because I'm busy trying to visualize what you're describing.

    The story is lacking your character's emotions. You can solve this by showing us more of her visceral responses and internal thoughts. More dialogue could help too. There’s a lot of telling us what she feels than showing the reader what she feels or thinks. Like when she flexes her arm and is “wonder-struck..” What does wonder-struck look like? Show us on the page. The Holy Maiden’s office bedazzled her, but we don’t get a visceral reaction to it. Does her heart speed up, her mouth drop, her breath catch? Show us what she feels and what she’s thinking with action-reaction-thought. It’ll give your work a deeper point of view.

    To describe the characters you introduce in this opening, you use their hair color or style. Find more unique ways to describe them that better shows the reader who they are. You did a beautiful job describing Ysabel at the beginning. Something unique about them other than a grocery list of their looks. They way they’re introduced here doesn’t feel organic.

    I love that she doesn’t want to be a princess and wants to be a knight. Her being a spy caught my attention and made me want to read on. My only disappointment was when she discloses to Suzette right away that she’s not a spy. I was hoping it was going to be a secret that she was going to have to hide or else something terrible would happen to her. That you’d have her worrying about someone finding out. Instead, it’s revealed within the first five pages of the manuscript. It’s a missed opportunity to add tension to the story. But I haven’t read your story so there could be a reason for it, and that’s fine. Just wanted to point that out.

    Anyway, I’m intrigued by this world and the World Games she’s eager to join! Great job, and good luck with the revisions!


  7. Hi Katherine,

    Thanks for sharing your work with us!

    Clearly, you have spent some time developing this world--its sights, textures, and colors spring to life, and there are lots of cultural cues that I really want to know more about, but right now I'm still waiting to find out what the STORY is about.

    I think perhaps we need a bit of telling interwoven into the showing, with a bit more interior thought from your character that tells the reader what her goal is in this scene. Every character enters a scene with a goal, but without that target in mind, it's unclear whether your character is reaching her goal, failing, or otherwise deviating. We need that goal post so we can cheer for her!

    That doesn't mean that you have to spill the central story question point blank in the opening paragraph, but your character's goal in this opening scene should relate to the central premise of the story overall. Right now, I'm not sure if she's a spy on a mission or if she is trying to join this religious/healing while her largo goal of being a knight is stated outright, I'm not sure if that's a real goal or a turn of phrase. Basically, your character needs to hide the ball a little less and let us into her interior thoughts--her hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. When she trusts us with those thoughts, we can become intimately acquainted and begin to cheer for her.

    Your setting is detailed, yet we need a little more sensory input--what are the smells, feels, sounds of the environment? Pick relevant ones that make it come to life.

    This section also gave me pause: "Ambiguously brown skin powdered to flawlessness and hazel eyes made it hard to pin down which foreign country she’d come from. Likely mixed-race."

    So, if the brown-skinned character must be "foreign" then the country they are currently in is 100% white? The main character has bronzed she also mixed race? Or is she tanned? I ask because the description here seems like race matters to the story, or that the race/power construct may mirror our modern world...basically, what's in the writing right now is a bit awkward and raises some concern for me.

    Best of luck with your revisions!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor

  8. Thanks to everyone for all your comments! I've gotten enough feedback (not just here) that my story starts slow that I'm going to try opening it in a completely different place. Plus, it makes more sense to start from Ysabel's POV since she's the main character. So you'll be getting a revision which looks REALLY different next time. However, all your comments are still useful since I'm keeping my prologue, though it may be in a very different place or perhaps even turned into a short story.