Saturday, October 6, 2018

1st 5 Pages October Workshop- Zhu

Name: Mayee Zhu
 Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Chapter One: A Star-Aligned Meeting

Traveling by star was a sweet but salty treat. Ari Pippin could see the universe zoom by and get to her destination faster than a speeding bullet, but hearing the opinionated stars insult her, and everybody under the sun dear to her, left a lot to be desired.

Ari could have been the Pope or the President of the United States, but if a star was driving her, no one was safe from the star’s roasts--not even an insecure best friend, sickly grammy or three-legged, sugar-sweet puppy.

Even worse was that stars were scorchingly curious and sought new information as avidly as Google. They devoured all the knowledge they could about the different worlds. The combination of the stars’ breakneck speed and acidic remarks made them undesirable transport for the weak of heart.

Noticing Ari, the star Pyxis flipped her head of platinum-colored hair that would cause Rumpelstiltskin to froth with jealousy. “Where are you headed, ginger pits?”

“Hey yourself, glitterbomb,” Ari said. “I’m going to Mintaka’s mansion.”

“That stuck-up hag who brings as much joy as week-old toenail crust? You’ll get along like me and your money.” Pyxis exhaled a stream of silver light and patted her back. “Hop on.”

Riding a star always seemed daunting at first, but Ari was a pro by now. She didn’t flinch when Pyxis casually reached underneath her shirt’s left, removable flap and into her glowing chest to snap a complete rib off. Stretching and wrapping it around her arm like a noodle, Pyxis offered the other end to Ari. Ari accepted it as if it was a stirrup attached to a horse, and sat on Pyxis’s back, which concaved like a hammock.

“To the most boring meeting in the universe!” Pyxis announced with faux chipperness, and her legs fused to launch off Handmaiden’s Hub with a low hum.

Ari tuned out Pyxis’s caustic commentary as Earth shrunk farther away and other stars speeded by. It all started seven years ago. The first time she arrived at Handmaiden’s Hub, where Ari saw the stars lounging against opaque, silvery pillars, she wanted to high-five her brain for conjuring up such a stunning dream. But then a star had to open her mouth and the dream-like quality came to a skidding halt.

When Ari’s parents still lived together, and her best friend was her twin sister, Ella Pippin, the most exciting moment of her fifth birthday was going to Mandy’s Meadows: Petting Zoo and Extraordinary Pets Breeder. Merino lambs there nuzzled their faces against Ari’s palm and face when she stroked them. Their wool was what Ari imagined a perfect cloud would feel like.

When it was time for bed, Ari talked to her twin about the animals at Mandy’s Meadows until Ella grumpily said, “Let me sleep. You talk too much. I could feel the chicken I ate for dinner trying to listen to you.”

So, Ari spent the last couple of minutes of her birthday mentally replaying the vision of the lambs, African Pygmy Hedgehogs, and Nigerian Dwarf goats, which were just a few of her favorite animals she saw that day. She closed her eyes and the memory of feeding one baby hedgehog a bit of strawberry floated before her. It bobbed its head, the strawberry slice growing smaller and smaller...and the next thing Ari knew, she was being insulted three different ways by the stars at Handmaiden’s Hub.

Ari was jolted back to the present with a stop so jarring, her red hair whooshed over her wayfarer glasses. She brushed her bangs back.

“That will be twenty-seven dzaras,” Pyxis said.

“Are you kidding me?! Last week, Yesi took me twice as far for eighteen.”

“Price hike. My bank account might as well have been swallowed up by a black hole with all these new taxes on simple stars like me.”

“And these laws were passed between last week and now?” Ari paraphrased doubtfully.

“Do you want proof, cheapskate?” Pyxis sneered.

Even though she doubted Pyxis, Ari rummaged in her knapsack for the money. She pulled out the glowing dzaras. They looked like bioluminescent jellyfish and floated dreamily in small circles above her hands.

Taking off the rib used as a harness, Pyxis pummelled it as easily as it was pizza dough. The star dumped the dzaras into the makeshift bag and tied it up, fastened the rib to her side, and sped away without so much as a goodbye.

Mintaka’s home loomed over Ari. A behemoth made out of rare jewels twinkled, and curved turrets created serpentine shadows onto the stairs.

Ari took a moment to just stare at the spectacle, and the castle preened like a purebred, prize-winning Siamese cat. The balcony’s guardrails curved into a smug smile, and one of the two windows’ blinds above it shut and open, like a coy wink. Ari waved, immediately felt stupid, and began her trek up the winding, moonrock steps.

Mintaka was the youngest triplet in Orion’s Belt. It was rumored she had an inferiority complex towards her two siblings. Her mother conceived all three of them at the same time but popped each daughter out a few million years apart. That was the way of the stars. Although stars felt time differently than humans, a million years was still quite a haul to them. Mintaka was destined to be the unfavorite of the bunch before she was even born.

Wheezing once she reached the top, Ari thought, No one’s calling me Ari Swolzzenager anytime soon, that’s for sure. Though she looked asleep back in her comfortable bed on Earth, she still felt physical exertion whenever she dreamwalked, or as the professional lingo called it, worldhopped. She rolled her eyes at the platinum door knockers, which were carved in the likeness of Mintaka, and banged both against the why-not platinum double doors. The knocks echoed throughout the house.

She waited for a minute before Mintaka’s satin voice slithered out the sound system: “I’ve been waiting for you, little one.”

The doors opened soundlessly and Ari blinked at the interior. It obviously didn’t want to be upstaged by the exterior. Expensive-looking artwork decorated the walls, a jeweled chandelier sparkled from the ceiling, and the welcome mat purred when Ari wiped her feet on it.

“Come to the parlor,” Mintaka invited.

“I might need help finding that as this place is a tad big,” Ari said.  

Mintaka whistled. With a rattle, a gaunt man with a gold collar around his neck and a ball and chain around one ankle appeared so close to Ari she took a step back.

“Hello,” she greeted politely.

The man glared at her and opened his mouth. He had no tongue.

“Sorry,” Ari said automatically, even though she did nothing wrong.

The tongueless man turned away from her and slowly walked forwards, his iron ball and chain dragging behind him. They walked through many hallways and rooms. Ari stopped counting after she reached fifty. Two perfectly good parlors passed by.

There were absurd rooms with no clear purpose. One had two voodoo dolls in the middle of the floor. Another had only a painting of a very macho star in uniform. And a third had a customized dartboard that was President Lyndon Johnson’s face. Ari didn’t know what Mintaka’s beef with that president was, but she hoped by the end of their meeting that her face wouldn’t be used for target practice, too.


  1. I loved the first paragraph! It was unique and fun, and it deftly brought the reader into the fantasy. I also thought many of the details were charming, like the “money” being floating, glowing jellyfish.

    As far as improvements, I would remove the flashback with her sister. The reader needs to get a feeling for this one new fantasy world without bouncing around between multiple worlds. I’m not even sure I would introduce the fact that she’s actually asleep until you’re done with the first scene at Mintaka’s castle.

    Because you’re working in such a fantastical universe, some of the descriptions left me scratching my head. Like, does a star look like a five-pointed star that a kid draws, or like a person (with ribs and legs and hair), or like a comet (with a swooping back) or like a horse (with a swooping back)?

    And how can a person ride a star, which is usually a burning ball of gas way bigger than a person? What is the mansion that the star lives in built on? Is it free-floating in space or is it built on a planet?

    Finally, I thought some of the language/ideas might be a little complex for middle grade, and could be simplified. Would they know who Lyndon Johnson is? BUT I don't read much middle grade, so it might actually be appropriate.

    Good job creating such an original world!

    1. Thank you, Mary!

      I could see how the humanoid stars could be confusing. I added some more details in the next edit--hopefully that clears it up!

      As for the language being too complex for middle grade, do you mean my word choice, something else, or both?

      Thanks again for all your helpful tips!

  2. Dear Mayee,

    I absolutely love the world you have introduced in these first few pages. And the writing! I can imagine someone who thinks the way Ari does as a world hopper.

    Now, to the possible improvements:
    1. I think the flashback is fine as long as you keep it short. Also, don't end it with Ari waking up. It could be me, but I pause for a while when seeing that she is waking up since you didn't mention that she is dozing; you write it as a flashback, perhaps you can keep it as a flashback.

    2. Again, this is completely subjective: I sort of cringed when I see the rib reference. Is it the best for an MG novel to be mentioning bending ribs?

    Other than that, this is a very solid work. Looking forward to your revision.

    Best regards,

    1. Thank you, Shirlyn!

      I was teetering between making this middle grade and young adult, but now I definitely think I'm going to make this young adult. Haha, I really liked the rib part, so that's staying in--hopefully levelling up to YA would reduce reader squeamishness.

    2. I ended up editing out the bending of the rib, but still used the rib as a rein. Thanks for your critique, Shirlyn! I could see how bending ribs can be too much for some young readers.

  3. Hi Mayee,

    I really liked the world-building that did in this piece, and your imagery was so fun and imaginative. I especially loved the sassy conversation between Ari and Pyxis. I'm not usually a fantasy reader, but the voice and humor in this one really hooked me in!

    I do agree with the other commenters about the flashback. I hope that you can use it elsewhere because it's very enjoyable to read, but I think it really interrupts the flow of the passage and it probably doesn't belong here.

    I was also a bit confused about the fact that the space taxis were stars and Mintaka was also a star who lived in a fancy house. If there is some kind of hierarchy among stars, it would be helpful to at least have a hint of that.

  4. Thank you so much for your kind words and critique, Lisa!

    Yeah, I'm going with the majority and getting rid of the flashback lol. It's funny that you mentioned the confusion about the star hierarchy--I explain it in the next hundred words of my manuscript, but I didn't have enough room to put it on this version. Thanks to getting rid of the flashback, though, I'll be able to explain the stars' status quo in the next update!

    Thanks again!


  5. Hi Mayee,
    Thanks for submitting your pages. This is a really cool concept. I love the idea of stars as sentient beings and how people ride them. It’s very inventive. This does feel middle grade to me. Very full of whimsy and very sparkly. I love the idea of stars always seeking information. It makes sense. That said, I think you might want to slow down a bit and really work on each paragraph. There’s a lot of info to take in, and you don’t want your reader to be over-whelmed stepping into this new world.

    The tongueless man took me by surprise and seemed a little out of place for what I thought was a very childlike story. President Lyndon Johnson? Why him? Did you pick him at random or for some reason?

    Traveling by star was a sweet but salty treat.
    Salty? Perhaps sour?

    Ari could have been the Pope or the President of the United States, but if a star was driving her, no one was safe from the star’s roasts--not even an insecure best friend, sickly grammy or three-legged, sugar-sweet puppy.

    Is Roast the right word? Perhaps: No one was safe from the star’s insults.
    (Not sure you need the rest of the sentence. We get the idea.)

    Mintaka was the youngest triplet in Orion’s Belt. It was rumored she had an inferiority complex towards her two siblings.
    Very funny!

    I think you’re onto something good here. Just really think about your word choices. Try to get us into the story with as little “telling” as possible. Make it as active as you can and let us feel Ari’s happiness, fear, etc.

    Nice job, Mayee. Looking forward to reading more!

    1. Thank you so much for your detailed critique, Ron!

      I took most of your comments to heart and re-edited my five pages again so the word choices and concepts would be easier to understand and are less out of place.

      I tried to include pieces of what I love from both MG and YA in my book--the whimsical, fantastical nature and wonder of MG and the more serious themes in YA, which will reveal themselves as my book progresses--but I definitely don't want my book to be stuck in a no man's land between the two. I'll include in my next revision some of the high stakes involved in visiting Mintaka, so hopefully that would help this story not appear too childish.

      Do you have any tips on how I can keep the playful atmosphere of the introduction while foreshadowing the darker and more mature themes to come? I'll completely understand if you reply next revision, since I'm sure you're really busy, and more information will be revealed next time.

      I had today and yesterday off, so that's why I've been able to spend so much quality time with this workshop recently, lol.

      Thanks again! I appreciate all your help!

  6. Hi Mayee,

    I love how original your story is. Right off the back, I’m intrigued. I mean, who wouldn’t be when we can ride stars in your world!

    I need more description of what the star looks like because my mind goes right to the five-pointed shape. I know you describe her hair, but maybe talk is stars are meant to look human like, describe Pyxis wearing something like a silky robe or maybe the star is naked - I don’t know, but I want to know more about these stars so I can delve deeper into the fantastic world you’ve created.

    The flashback confuses me and takes me out of your story. I think it’s important to have the flashback (now we know she has a twin sister and another reality exists), but the stream of consciousness took me from her parents separation, to her sister, to her birthday at a petting zoo, pretty quickly and I think it could be a bit smoother.

    When you say the door knockers were carved in the likeness of Mintaka, can you give us some description as to what Mintanka looks like? I’m very interested to know how Mintanka knows Ari has arrived and can talk to her without being seen yet by Ari.

    Great job!

    1. Thanks Kaylynn!

      Got it--I will include a little more about her clothes in the next update and make it clear that these aren't the five-pointed stars we see on kids' graded homework papers.

      Arghh, I describe Mintaka more when Ari meets her face-to-face, which is now in the next 150 words after my latest edit. I'll see what I can do.

  7. Hi Mayee!

    You totally grabbed my attention with that first line. The whole opening paragraph was wonderful.

    I got a little lost on the second paragraph - I thought she was traveling with the insecure best friend, sickly gramma, and sugar-sweet puppy. Minor confusion, though.

    Since you open with Ari riding on a star, I thought she was on a star already, but then we find her approaching Pyxis for a ride. (Also, um, hello? Speaking as a redhead myself, "ginger pits" is my new favorite thing.) I would try to integrate Pyxis's comments into the ride itself, rather than detail out the transaction and subsequent ride.

    I really love your world so far. It has some kind of sweet details, but also, some really macabre ones that I would have loved in middle school. (I.e, the rib getting pulled out for a harness; the slave/servant with no tongue.)

    I caught a glance of the first comment here, in which it was suggested you cut the flashback with Ari's sister and maybe establish the dream world at the end of the scene. I agree with that. I was all in for this sassy star riding adventure and then I'm reading about a petting zoo and I don't see yet how the two were connected. (Beyond the texture of a cloud, but it's not clear if Handmaiden's Hub is a cloud?)

    I love Mintaka's introduction and her inferiority complex. Details like that are awesome. On the other hand, based on Ari's conversation with Pyxis, I thought she knew Mintaka and had been to her mansion before, yet she needed help finding the parlor. Pyxis also hints at a meeting with Mintaka, but Ari never explained what her purpose was for going. It would be a good way to hint at what the bigger plot is going to be.

    I like that stars are super curious, but I'd love to know why. You mention their caustic remarks and demonstrate as much, but Pyxis doesn't ask any questions, not even about the nature of Ari's meeting. It's a small detail, but it was a good detail so I wanted to know more about it. :)

    One thing, as someone who failed to sell a quirky macabre middle grade fantasy (argh!) with the feedback that my humor often ran to an older audience, some of the references and humor do feel a little more "adult" to me, like the word "roast," or the reference to Lyndon Johnson. Something to watch out for, but otherwise, I enjoyed this.

  8. Thank you for the detailed feedback, Mary!

    Wow, this is really helpful. I feel like with each comment posted, my work gets better and better. I knew it could improve, but not by this much! That shows me I still have a lot to learn.

    It's decided! As everyone dissed the flashback, I'm getting rid of it.

    Thanks again for both your super constructive critique. I had no idea I could revise my story so much!

  9. I apologize for not getting my feedback in on time! That was a scheduling error on my part. I read through this and will weigh in on your revision.

    1. I understand! I look forward to your critique next week. Hope you have a relaxing weekend!