Sunday, May 5, 2019

1st Five Pages May Workshop - Duperre

Name: Amber Duperre
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Golden Lake

Every year on the anniversary of Dad’s disappearance, I planted trees in his favorite spot: an abandoned field he bought from a local retired farmer. He was a nature lover, and in his mind, how could you not be? He made it his mission to turn that field into a lush forest, planting trees there every day the weather permitted it. He loved every one of those damn trees. He even watered them with water he formulated especially for them. Now that he was gone, I made it my mission to continue his mission.

Taking a deep breath, my nostrils searched for him: the clean smell of his shampoo, the startling herbaceous aroma of hops he used to brew beer. Nothing. All that was left was the memory of these smells. I sighed, placed my water and shovel on the ground, and laid in the field in complete silence, my worries melting into the fertile soil below. The ground, warm from the beating sun’s rays, swaddled me like a heated blanket. I closed my eyes and felt him lying there next to me. A gust of wind blew by and dried a tear before it fell off my cheek. I imagined it was his finger brushing against my skin, telling me it would be okay, comforting me like only a parent could. This day never got easier, no matter if it was the first anniversary of his disappearance or the third.

Dad’s love for nature rubbed off on me more in the last three years than it did when he was around. The thought brought more tears to my eyes. It was something I didn’t get to share with him.

I laid there for a half hour before getting to work.

I planted a new tree, watered it, and splashed more water around the roots of the ones I planted last year. Then I drove back to Nana’s house. I kicked off my boots and peeled off my dirty gloves before going inside. My bare shoulders thanked me immediately upon finding respite from the sun. I used my arm to wipe sweat off my brow. All the windows and doors were open but that didn’t make a difference. The air was heavy with moisture, hot, and almost suffocating. Nothing out of the ordinary for the middle of summer. When I stepped inside, I heard her.

“Arabella,” Nana yelled from out back. My teeth clenched so hard they could shatter. Nana got on my nerves every day, but especially this one, especially on the anniversary of her only child’s disappearance. His disappearance never seemed to bother her much. And she wasn’t exactly the nurturing type. I’d had to deal with the loss, confusion, and desperate hope, all on my own.

Rolling my eyes, I blocked out the rest of her muffled words. I already knew what she wanted. And she knew where I had been.

I padded over to the kitchen, leaving a trail of dirt through the carpeted living room, my small act of defiance, until I faced the pot with boiled sugar water and the empty glass hummingbird feeder next to the sink. It was a pointless task. Living in upstate New York, you would think there would be plenty of hummingbirds flying by in the summer. But in all the time I remembered her doting over the twenty or so feeders in the yard, Nana never got a single hummingbird to come to the house. She always wound up dumping the sugar water when spots of mold materialized in the feeders.

After filling the feeder and screwing on the lid, I slid on some clean shoes, pushed open the back door, and found Nana standing in the backyard in her favorite brown leather dress that stopped two inches above her knees. I thought of my friends’ grandmas. Some of them knitted, some clipped coupons, and some line danced, but none made and wore short leather dresses. Nana’s spiky gray hair sparkled in the sun’s light. “Nana, I…” I’d wanted to ask what time we were going to visit my mom today.

Before I could finish the question, something buzzed by my head. Like 50 bees at once. My grip loosened on the bird feeder. I quickly supported it with my left hand so it wouldn’t crash to the ground. Nana had her arms outstretched like Frankenstein. Twelve ruby-throated hummingbirds perched on her arms, their green and red feathers shimmering in the sun’s mid-afternoon light. She turned her head to look at me.

I jumped, spilling sugar water onto my shoe. Nana’s eyes, her piercing green eyes that reminded me of the conniving nature of some household cats, were full of joy. She was smiling. That never happened. Nana never showed emotion. “They finally came,” she said, then turned her attention to her bird friends, her back facing me.

Hoping for a better look, I walked around to Nana’s front. Her eyebrows were drawn together and her mouth made an “O” shape. She nodded as if the birds told her something important. Then she looked at me. At me. Had the hummingbirds mentioned me?

“Are they…. Are they talking to you?” I asked, running my hand through my long brown hair over and over again-- my nervous habit.

Her bright eyes stared deep into mine. I didn’t look away like usual. I was too stunned. Ignoring my question, Nana asked, “Are you planning on visiting your mom today?” Then she turned her head back toward the hummingbirds, unable to keep her attention from them for long.

“Yeah,” I answered, exasperated. She already knew that. I visited Mom every weekend, and usually multiple times during the week, too. Nana came with me every time. “But what are they saying to you?” What I really meant was, what’s going on with you? Is Nana losing her mind, too? I can’t handle that.

“Go without me today,” Nana said, seemingly holding two conversations at once. She mumbled something to the hummingbirds.

Stepping backward, away from Nana who may or may not have been in her right mind at the moment, I simply said, “Okay.” I shook the whole scene in front of me off as some weird coincidence. I unscrewed the lid on the feeder I was holding and doused a small cooking fire Nana had built. Skewered over the fire was something small. It looked like a charred squirrel. God, I hoped it wasn’t squirrel.

Other grandmas didn’t do that either.

“You’re gonna miss the anniversary beer,” I said. Then I grumbled, “Probably doesn’t taste good anymore, anyway,” more to myself than to her.

I turned and walked quickly into the house, confused by everything I just witnessed. 

In the spare bedroom I grabbed one of Dad’s homebrewed beers. In our old house he had a small brewery in a spare room. He made 5-gallon batches and pride beamed out his eyeballs every time he made something new. I tried to stay away from him while he was brewing because once he got talking about beer, he never shut up. The guy could talk for hours. Once, he went on a rant about how important water is in the brewing process. ‘Amateurs and regular people just don’t understand how the chemistry of the water can change the whole taste of the batch.’

I wished I could listen to his rants one more time. I missed him so damn much.


  1. The narrative about the characters seems a bit all over the place. If the thought can stay on one character at a time, I may be able to understand the bigger picture.

  2. I love the first sentence! Great job pulling the reader into what’s going on. “He was a nature lover, and in his mind, how could you not be?” read a bit awkwardly to me. It would be easy enough to say something like, “Dad never understood why anyone wouldn’t love nature.” Something like that seems more clear and concise. It might be good to take some of the background information about her dad, like the details of his special watering formula out of the beginning and move it to later in the story. It felt like it broke up the flow a bit.
    I have a good sense of place and setting, and immediately get that she doesn’t have a mom in the home and has a strained relationship with her Nana. Good job weaving that into the beginning. I'm sure we will find out more about her mother's circumstances as the story unfolds.
    When Nana is with the birds, it seems strange for Arabella to ask if they are talking about her. Coming from it without any context, it threw me off a bit. I would focus on tightening up the first few pages.

  3. Amber,
    Thank you for letting us read your first pages. I love how you set up the theme of nature not only through her father, but her grandmother as well. Since this is a fantasy, I'm wondering if the relationship of the grandmother and the birds has some magical angle to it. If so, I'd love to see a glimpse of it.
    The first paragraph carries a lot of information. You might want to introduce some of it a bit later in the story.
    Can't wait to read more and find out about the Golden Lake!

  4. Hi Amber,

    Right off, we learn that Dad disappeared, which is fascinating. To pull me in even more, I'd like to know that he's not a deadbeat, that there is a mystery here, there was blood or something, a possible crime, and Arabella is going to do more about it than plant trees. The tree moment may be interesting later in the book, but I don't think it's compelling enough to start a book. Adults might stick with you, but not kids. However, right after this, you nail it.

    I think this line is brilliant - Nana had her arms stretched out like Frankenstein. I would start here. I also love the description of the hummingbirds on her arms. The line 'they finally came' puts questions in my mind. I'm definitely going to keep reading.

    After this description, you could say that it was the anniversary of Dad's disappearance. This way, we're wondering if they're going mad or not.

    When Arabella jumps back, and bumps over the sugar, I'm really in this scene and in the character's body. I love it. The line - are they talking to you - that is so fascinating, and the reason is that I have questions in my mind. However, I think this whole scene needs to be drawn out. I want to see Nana do more things, and the hummingbirds too. You've picked a 'first' which is a wonderful way to start the book.

    After this, though, why would the Nana suddenly talk about the mom? It's too soon. Maybe have Arabella say she's going to see her mom at the end of the scene, but this wouldn't be on either of their minds. If anything, Nana might tell her to leave and go see her mom. That way, we might frightened for the Nana. It's an opportunity to increase tension.

    I love the squirrel too. I want more info. Does Nana cook other weird things? How does this connect to dad and hummingbirds?

    I felt that the beer moment was out of jibe with the rest. I don't think it flows with the emotional intensity. Arabella isn't going to shake it off. Would you? No, you'd try to figure out what's going on or you might run in terror. Getting Arabella to do a regular chore eliminates the wonderful tension that you've built up. The beer on its own, later, in a different context, is well described, but it doesn't fit in this scene. And she's not going to be thinking about missing her dad after the hummingbird madness.

    It is the anniversary of Dad's disappearance, though, so maybe the hummingbirds tie into this. If so, can the hummingbirds provide a clue? Or, possibly, the hummingbird situation happens and then her Dad disappears. Somehow, the two are linked, I think, and it's good to give us a bread crumb so we follow the clues.

    I have one other are usually more interested in kids, so have you thought about making a brother disappear instead of a dad? Or a best friend? That will get more buy-in from kids reading it.

    In any case, you have built up a fascinating beginning, and I would definitely want to keep reading more just to learn what's going on with the hummingbirds and Nana. Let me know if you have any questions.


    Kim Purcell

    1. Hi Kim,

      Thanks so much for your wonderful insight! I agree with you that talking about her dad's love for nature and the tree planting could come later in the book. I initially had the story starting with the Nana/hummingbird scene and was told that I needed more background information first instead of jumping right into it, that it was confusing without more context. I'm thinking maybe I can start the story at the Nana/hummingbird scene again and draw out the narrative more like you suggested, that maybe this will solve both problems- start at a more inciting incident than the tree planting and clear up the confusion without any background info. The scene may be a little too rushed.

      For your question about how the squirrel is connected to Dad and the hummingbirds:
      As far as the charred squirrel (sorry squirrel, RIP) being connected to Dad and the hummingbirds, the connection becomes clear a few chapters in. Do you think that's okay or in your opinion, should it be sooner?

      For your question, Can the hummingbirds provide a clue about Dad's disappearance?
      The hummingbirds do this, but later in the chapter while Arabella is visiting her mom. Nana calls her about what the hummingbird conversation was about and it's revealed then. Maybe I can weave the clues in sooner in the opening Nana/hummingbird scene. What do you think?

      Lastly, having the person that disappeared be her dad is important for the rest of the plot. As the first chapter goes on, you learn that Arabella's mom was put into a home for becoming mentally unstable and endangering herself and Arabella after Dad's disappearance, that Arabella's been really unhappy living with Nana for multiple reasons, and that she hasn't had much time for friends who she's become distanced from lately between visiting her mom as much as possible, school work, and chores Nana gives her. Her drive to find her father is fueled by her desire to get her old life back- to stop living with Nana, have Dad back, have Mom back, and have her friends back. Do you think that works well enough to get buy-in from teenagers? Or should changes be made to the plot?

      Thanks again so much!

  5. I think some foreshadowing about the hummingbirds and dad is a great idea. I love starting with that scene and expanding it. I love the squirrel moment and the questions it brings, and I think you can leave the mystery of that until later. Can’t wait to read the next draft!

  6. Hi Amber,

    Thank you for submitting the pages for critique! I love YA fantasy and was very excited to be assigned your book this month. Here are some thoughts I had while reading. Hopefully, this will be useful for your revisions.

    I really liked the voice and the pacing of your pages! Arabella's narration drew me in and I enjoyed guessing at what the setting was from the subtle hints she was dropping.

    Having said that, I was also rather confused. It feels like there's lots of things going on (e.g. Arabella's Dad has disappeared, her mom is maybe unwell, her grandma is a bit strange, there are birds, there are trees...) and yet I struggled to pinpoint what was the hook of the story. Perhaps, you could choose 1-2 main things you want to emphasize here - to hook the reader. I'd focus on her dad's disappearance. Can you give us a little hint as to what happened to him, or at least what Arabella thinks happened? Is she tormented by it? Does she want to know where has he gone? Is she scared? If not that, then what DOES she want? Another thing I'd want want more clarity on is the setting/context/environment, etc. I get a vague idea of where we are, but I want to feel it a lot more. Can you ground us more in Arabella's perception of her surroundings?

    Hope this is helpful. I'm very curious to read your next revision, and to know more about this story!
    Cheers, Katya