Sunday, July 7, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Abdow

Name: Emily Abdow
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Knives and Ribbons

The toes of Esper's boots, once her father's, tipped over the cliff's edge. 

She leaned forward, toes curling, things burning, looking down into the
darkness. A gust of wind wrapped her in an icy embrace, but she did not
shiver. She parted her lips, drinking in the bitter taste of precious stones
torn from the mines-amber, peridot, garnet, and rare, valuable crystal. 

The king was dead, and the village of Deadener's Peak was in mourning. It
was Esper's own sadness that had led her here, to the sheer, jagged drop;
the only edge of the village not walled in by slabs of gray stone. But she
was not sad for the king. She was sad for herself because King Roran had
kept alive the memory of her father, Lord Aeric, the knight who had served
as Roran's chief advisor until the Bloodroses killed him. 

She wrapped her palm around the hilt of Kabar, her knife, feeling the
familiar bite of the engraving on the hilt. She remembered the day her
father had given her Kabar. She'd been only five. 

He'd held the knife out, hilt first. A flower blossomed at the blade's tip,
stem snaking onto the hilt where thorns rose in angry points. 

She'd cried out as the thorns pricked her skin, drawing blood. When she'd
tried to let go he'd wrapped his hand around hers, forcing her fingers to
the metal. She'd felt the calluses on his palm, hardened patches in the
pattern of her fresh wounds. 

"As long as you wield Kabar," he'd said, "I can keep you safe."

That was the last time she'd seen him, twelve years ago. In those twelve
years, her own palm had callused like his. When she missed him, as she did
now, she clenched the hilt and dared her skin to give. But now she was too
hardened to bleed. 

As Kabar's thorns bit into her flesh, she looked down into the darkness. It
seemed almost soft.


The shout startled her. Her boots crunched as she tilted further than she'd
planned. A pair of arms wrapped around her middle, hauling her back from the
edge. His body warmed her; the sugary scent of his mother's sticky snow
candies filled her nose. But tonight, she was in no mood for sweetness. She
brought both elbows to his stomach, breaking through his embrace. 

"Grower's seeds, Faean. You could have killed me."

His green eyes widened. "Me?" he said. "Kill you?" He shook his head, his
hair, sunrise orange, flopping against his forehead. "You're the one trying
to die the same way as your father."

Her fingers clenched around Kabar. "I would be proud," she said, "to die
fighting Bloodroses."

Faean sighed. "I meant falling off a cliff."

"He didn't fall," Esper said. "He was pushed." 

Falling was an accident. Her father would have never been so careless. The
Bloodroses had surrounded him at the castle's cliff, forced him back, back,
back, until there was nowhere to go but down, nothing to do but drown in the
Balmyran sea.  

She whirled from the cliff's edge and slammed her shoulder into Faean's
chest. The force of the impact sent him sprawling to the ground. Faean's
head knocked against a bulge of crystal root protruding from the mountain.
Esper was too angry to care. Pinning his elbows with her knees, she dug her
weight into the bone of his joints. He winced, face flushing and puffing.
She pressed her blade to his pale throat. A gust of wind ruffled his hair.
She smelled sugar. Every memory of him, her childhood training partner, her
best friend, smelled of sugar. Her anger evaporated. She raised her blade so
it hovered above his pale skin, now just a formality. 

"Any last words?"

Faean made a show of gasping for air. "Send Clara my love."

"Grower's Seeds." Esper rolled off him, onto her back. "Couldn't you pick
better last words? How about, 'Esper, you're destined to be the greatest
knight in Allaysia.'"

Faean laughed. "But you're already so certain of that. Why waste my dying
breaths making you more insufferable?"

Esper countered. "Why waste your dying breaths on a woman you'll be too dead
to marry?"

"It's the same as wasting my living ones," Faean said. "Clara will never
choose someone from an outer ring. She'll marry someone who reads, or Prince
Rain himself."

Esper hated when Faean talked like this, like he was worth less than those
in the inner rings. His father had mined ore for barely five copper seeds a
day before losing his arm and his livelihood in a mining accident. Faean's
mother did her best by selling her sticky snow candies for a half copper
each. If Faean's father could read, he could have made a living by lending
seeds or recording trades. But reading was a blessing reserved for the
innermost ring. Because one's ring was determined by how many seeds one paid
as tribute to the Grower, Faean's family tree couldn't be replanted in a
ring closer to the Grower's Tree. 

In her seventeen years, Esper could count on one hand the number of family
trees that had been replanted, and most to an outer ring. 

Esper's own family tree grew only two rings closer to the Grower's Tree than
Faean's, remaining where it did because of the meager pension her mother
received for her father's service to the crown. Given her father had been
chief advisor to King Roran himself, she would have expected more than ten
silver seeds a moon. But she would never complain about that, not to Faean. 

Instead of working, Faean's father and a growing number of crippled miners
could be found huddled in the mines scraped dry of treasure, shredding their
palms on the jagged edges of crystal shards. The shards were a drug. They
caused every breath of thin mountain air to sing with life. But for every
bit of life the shards gave, they took tenfold. Crystal shard users faded to
shadows of their former selves. But the worst was the newborns of the
addicts, born screaming with eyes that flashed silver and faded within
seconds as their small bodies grew cold and still with death. 

Every moon, more small corpses lined the insides of abandoned mines turned
burial grounds. The Under-Lord of Deadener's Peak was so far unable to catch
the criminal who was imbuing the scraps of crystal with their addictive
properties. Faean's father and the other users would fade away. But there
was hope for his son.  

"You won't be in the outer ring forever," Esper said. "Not once you become a
knight. Soon we'll be riding from Deadener's Peak to Balmyra, protecting
every village from Bloodroses."

Faean was silent.

"Come on." Esper rose to her feet, holding out her hand. Faean took it and
she pulled him up. The moment he steadied himself, she slid her fingers from
his and delivered a blow to his shoulder. This one was not powered by rage
but tempered. After all, she needed her training partner to be well enough
so that she could batter him again tomorrow night.

They sparred, their boots slipping and sliding on the crystal roots of the
Grower's Tree. The roots flickered with ribbons of silver ether, the world's
lifeforce, which flowed from deep beneath the mountain into the trunk of the
Grower's Tree. 


  1. Hi Emily, and thanks for sharing your first five pages!

    Wow, you are clearly excellent at world-building, and I find your voice and characters equally engaging. Even from these few pages, I can sense the epic quality of the story. You skillfully weave in enough history to establish the realm and relationships, while nicely avoiding exposition dump.

    A few questions/suggestions:

    1) In paragraph 2, do you mean "thighs burning"?

    2) I am curious about the Bloodroses. Perhaps add a bit of detail about them early on, as you make Esper's father's fate clear (though I realize we will encounter them later, and there's no need to flesh them out fully in the first few pages).

    3) So, "Grower's seeds" seems to be an exclamation, yes? I like it, but I wonder if you could make it clearer with a simple punctuation tweak. For example here: ORIGINAL: "Grower's seeds, Faean. You could have killed me."

    TWEAKED: "Grower's seeds! Faean, you could have killed me!"

    4) Syntax: Her father would have never been so careless. --> Her father never would have been so careless.

    5) Balmyran sea. Capitalize Sea.

    6) The shards were a drug. <-- Can you say this less obviously? The shards were intoxicating... Or something? "Drug" seems too contemporary, too straightforward.

    6) The same here: "But the worst was the newborns of the addicts, born screaming with eyes that flashed silver and faded within
    seconds as their small bodies grew cold and still with death."

    The description of the babies is very powerful, but something more along these lines might make it less contemporary and tighten it. "But the worst were the newborn of those under the shards' power. Born screaming, with eyes that flashed silver, they faded within
    seconds, their small bodies cold and still in death." Just a suggestion.

    7) But there was hope for his son. <-- seems you could use a little transition here (acknowledge that SHE believes this) before she says this:

    "You won't be in the outer ring forever," Esper said.

    8) Just a tiny bit of tightening here:

    ORIGINAL: "They sparred, their boots slipping and sliding on the crystal roots of the Grower's Tree. The roots flickered with ribbons of silver ether, the world's lifeforce, which flowed from deep beneath the mountain into the trunk of the Grower's Tree."

    TIGHTER: "They sparred, boots slipping on the crystal roots of the
    Grower's Tree. The roots flickered with silver ether, the world's lifeforce, which flowed from deep beneath the mountain into the great tree's trunk."

    I honestly don't have more than these few suggestions, so I hope this feedback is helpful. You might look for other spots to tighten language just a bit, but aside from these small tweaks, I think this is in fine shape. Nicely done!

    All best,


  2. Thank you for sharing your pages, Emily. It's always a little intimidating to have your work up for critique, so kudos to you for diving in!

    In the second line, what things are burning? A town? Debris? I would be specific here. Unless it's a typo?

    The paragraph beginning with The king was dead has quite a bit of passive voice - ‘was’ is fine a lot of times, but sometimes the sentence can be rewritten with stronger verbs or tweaked to remove extra words. Ex: The king was dead, and the village of Deadener’s Peak mourned. Esper’s own sadness led her here…

    The section on the knife is written with intensity and feels active even though it’s calling back to an earlier time. This reads really well. Then you tie it back to the darkness she’s looking into. I think it works well.

    Once you have Faean on the page, I would be mindful about not dipping too much into exposition since you lose the momentum and pacing slows. When she slams into Faean, maybe break up that chunk of text so it reads like action beats. Keep it active rather than passive:
    She whirled from the cliff’s edge and slammed her shoulder into Faean’s chest. She sent him sprawling to the ground.
    “Ahh!” His head knocked against a bulge of crystal root…
    Esper dismissed his cries. [active verb]. Pinning his elbows with her knees…
    You can have him talk back to her some more here so you get more heated exchanges as she presses the blade at his throat. Look for ways to ramp up the tension. Those shorter lines broken up with white space keep up the energy and you can build suspense. Even if this is just a game, or playful, adding in that banter makes it more clear.
    See if some of the backstory narrative can work in dialogue too as long as it’s not too obvious [As you know, my father once…] but the dialogue can break up some of the narrative so your character is adding context rather than explaining a lot to the reader. In fantasy, this is a challenge because you have so much set-up to do. I think you’re on the right track, so these are more of reminders to keep the scene as active as you can since you have two characters together.

  3. Hi Emily! Wow, your pages are beautiful. You have such gorgeous, literary writing, it’s really enticing to read and get lost in your sentences. I can tell you’re a great writer! My comments are mainly developmental and not line level since I think you’re on top of that 😊

    Your world building is incredible and you’ve put a lot of thought behind that which is awesome. One thing I found with that though is that the first time I read over your excerpt, I found myself confused for most of it, reading back and forth to remind myself what was going on. I do wonder if it is a bit of information overload upfront, and whether it should be spaced out more? I read it a second time, and on second reading it made more sense to me, then I got lost again after the growers tree paragraphs.

    I wonder if you can start with the scene over the cliff and move straight into when Faen scares her? We do need to know before that the history of her father and it would keep the action moving.

    The cliff piece has me a little confused too, as in one paragraph you mention burning as well as ice and shivering. And I wasn’t sure how she tasted the minerals, if there was water around. The other part that confused me was the blade, and how a flower could grow when her father was holding it, was the flower under his fingers, etc. moments like that through me out of the flow of the story a little.

    This is all super subjective though, and maybe nobody else had this issue. Just wanted to raise it in case you’re not getting requests with agents and were wondering if there was anything about the pages.

    Can’t wait to see where this goes, you’re an amazing writer!

    1. Well set up. Main character relationship established. Writing is clean. The external goal of elevating their station in life established.

      The opening is engaging but I didn’t understand why she didn’t shiver in the icy cold or how she drank the taste of various stones. Were they made into tea? Is that something the village does for some purpose or did she make it herself?

      It seems improbable that she (especially at five years old) could feel the pattern of his calluses on the back of her hand while the metal points of the knife handle punctured the skin of her palm. If it is important for her hand to become callused like his perhaps she can see his palm after he releases her hand from the knife.

      The line, But now she was too hardened to bleed is intriguing. I assume you mean the skin of her palm was literally too hardened to bleed. But you say ‘she was too hardened to bleed.” If this also refers to the hardening of her whole self you might want to make that distinction.

      When Esper grabs her from behind she could certainly feel the warmth of his body right away. His body could not ‘warm her’ in that instant.

      When Esper says to Faean ‘I meant falling off a cliff” she whirls on him and shoves him hard to the ground. This is a good action scene that is broken up with back story of how her father was killed. How he died is important but inserting it between her angry words and pushing Esper down takes some of the urgency from the action scene. There’s probably a better place for it.

      In the opening Faean is wearing her father’s boots. After reading the whole piece and knowing he went off the cliff and drowned in the sea I wondered how she got his boots and why. You do mention boots again at the end of the chapter and it made me wonder if that is foreshadowing for and important element of the story like the passing of boots is something important in this culture?

      All in all, I think this is a great start to what I’m sure is a great story.

    2. Oops! I meant ***We don't* need to know before that the history of her father and it would keep the action moving...

  4. This was a good story. It has some good descriptions and interesting world building. The narration was clear, and I like Esper's character.

    One thing about the knife, Kabar. It is very similar to a real company that also makes knives called Ka-Bar. That brandname is trademarked. I don't know if this was intentional or not, but I'd consider changing it.

    Most of your exposition is handled well, and I get a real sense of the world. I might consider trimming the one about the crystals though. It's well written and I like the idea, but I can't help wondering if there is a more natural place in the story to put it. It kind of seemed like unnecessary at the time.

    The part about the king being dead was a bit off to me. It seemed to come out of nowhere. But that might just be me.

    I'd also consider trimming the action a bit to make it more speedy. It's good, but could use a bit of editing. Perhaps take out the parts with the passive voice.

    All in all, this was good. The characters were well done, and we can get a clear understanding of them. I would just tighten everything up a bit, and maybe cut a few sentences here and there.