Sunday, July 7, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Lowrey

Name: Nicole Lowrey
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Beneath the Abyss

Laina flinched as dark clouds slithered across the sky. Her heart hammered against her ribs.

Rain tapped against the windows louvers and she flicked them shut, clicking reload on her phone. Again. Come on, come on.

Why wouldn’t the internet load? Maybe the storm was making it worse.

A text from Veronica appeared.

Got the text from school? Results are up.

Laina’s stomach rolled with the beans she’d eaten that morning. She moved the phone around near the window, hoping to get a better connection. She’d been trying for ten minutes, but it felt like an hour.

 She squealed when her inbox finally appeared. Second email from the top were her mid-term biology results. She clicked it and scanned the page, looking for the result she’d been dreading all morning.

There it was.

Eighty-eight per cent.


Her shoulders sagged. Not the A she’d hoped for. She’d need ninety per cent to get into senior year bio. Higher to get into climate science at an Australian university, like her dad had done. A knot formed at the back of her throat. How would she break it to him? He’d been so thrilled when she’d told him her plans, to take her little sister Fiona to Melbourne and live and study there. That hinged on if she could make the marks for a scholarship. Unlikely, now.

She clicked back to her messages. B+, you?

The phone pinged. B.

Three squiggled lines jumped on screen as Veronica typed something. Then it vibrated again. Can I come over?

Laina pinched her eyes closed and wiped away the sweat brewing on her forehead. The summer heat in Mexico felt stifling. More humid than countries she’d lived in across the Pacific, or even South America.

She shivered as a rumble of thunder rolled over. If only she could hurl the ache in her heart into the clouds, watch it combust in an electrical flash. She heaved a sigh, the humid summer air thick in her lungs. The storm was moving on, but there’d be another one later. There’d been nothing but rain all week. Right in the middle of dry season too. It was unheard of. They’d had to cancel the school fundraiser for the drought relief efforts when rain washed the stalls out. Totally ironic.

Gritting her teeth, she tapped back. Yes, come. Storm’s ending.

Soft footsteps padded behind her. “Something’s burning,” said Fiona, her nose wrinkling.

Laina turned and swore. Thick smoke billowed in plumes as she opened the oven door, dragging out the sunken black carcass of her sourdough. A blast of heat smacked her in the face, like she hadn’t been sweating enough already. Smoke filled her nose and she sneezed and flapped her hand to fan the smoke away.

“Where are the oven mitts?”

Fiona shrugged. She poured herself a glass of water and trudged out, like the kitchen wasn’t burning down around them.

Martha, their in-house nurse, appeared out of nowhere, slammed the oven door shut, and scolded Laina in a flurry.

“Que haces niña? I told you to be careful when you left the stove on two days ago. You’ll smoke the house out. What about your poor father?”

Laina tensed, flicking her head towards his bedroom door. With it closed shut, no smoke would creep in. Thank god. If she’d aggravated his lungs more…

She didn’t dare think what could’ve happened.

“Let me clean up.” Laina followed Martha as she bustled to each window, opening the shutters wide.

Martha swatted her away with a flick of her wrist. “I’ll fix it. Just make yourself useful somewhere else.”

Laina bit the inside of her cheek, blinking twice to stem angry tears from forming. She couldn’t even handle the smallest things anymore, not even a damn loaf of bread. Her grades had slipped over the past couple of months. And to top it off, Fiona still wouldn’t talk to her. It was all too much. School had given her time off to help around the house, but how was she meant to keep up, missing all her lessons? She was useless around the house. There was no way she could look after Fiona, the house, and be everything her dad needed her to be.

She chucked the smoking heap of charred dough in the bin. A new wave of anxiety kicked its way up her throat and she fought to keep it down. She’d cried enough this week.

All she wanted to do was burst into her dad’s bedroom, wrap him up in her arms and tell him she had it all figured out. She’d look after Fiona, study hard and make it work, when he was gone. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t bare the disappointment in his eyes, knowing it wasn’t true.

The door to his room was splintering near the hinges, and needed a coat of paint. She’d meant to buy paint last week, but then got caught up when the water tank bust a leak again. It was hard enough keeping on top of the urgent jobs. Before he…

No, don’t think about it.

Laina chewed on her lip until the metallic taste of blood hit her tongue. He slept most days, waking to eat in the mornings and afternoons. Energy sapped from his body like a leaky tap. Nothing she could do would help.

Martha swept up again like a belligerent sparrow and thrust a basket into her chest.

“You’ve been hanging around doing nothing all day. We need water and groceries. How can I make your dad’s dinner when we have no water?”

Laina dropped the basket to her feet. “I’m more useful here than out there! And seriously, what if something happens to him while I’m out?”

“That’s why I’m here. Now go.” Martha bustled her to the door with a jab of the broom’s sharp bristles before she could protest. The door to Fiona’s room stood ajar and Laina stuck her fingers around the wooden frame, digging her nails in before Martha swept her outside.

Fiona sat against the wall, her knees curled into her chest, nose deep in a fantasy book. “Come with me,” Laina said, swallowing as her voice wavered. Fiona’s eyes lifted from her pages then dropped back. Laina pulled back, an ache swelling in her chest. So Fiona was still giving her the silent treatment. The worst part? She had no idea why.

Laina slammed the front door behind her and ran. She needed to get away, get far away from it all. Their cottage by the coast in Tulum was a short walk from everything. The market, the forest, the beach. Pelting down the dirt track, she slipped between timber posts and into the woods behind the line of bright homes. A soft breeze flicked at the tendrils of her hair, tickling against her flushed cheeks. She stopped when she reached her favourite spot, pressing her palm against the rough bark of a flame tree.

This was where she always came, to catch her breath. When it all became too much. Deep in the forest, surrounded by sycamores, flourishing ferns, and wildlife, was where she felt home. Her worries would disappear as she closed her eyes, taking in the songs of birds, the whistling wind. 


  1. Wow, Nicole! I'm very impressed with these first five pages. You nicely define relationships and give a good sense of central conflicts in the story: Laina's sick father, her disrupted connection with Fiona, and her worry over the future. You also keep my attention with some lovely descriptive writing. I am especially enamored of "the sunken black carcass of her sourdough." :)

    I have a few questions and suggestions.

    1) Right at the start, I'd rethink "hammered at her ribs." It's a bit of a tired phrase, and it makes her seem scared, rather than anxious.

    2) It's clear Laina and her family have lived a number of places. Would it be a good idea to give a hint of why? It's not essential you reveal it immediately, but I wonder if it's important...

    3) While the beans are in keeping with a Mexican breakfast (and help establish place), it just seems odd right at the start to mention only beans, as if that's all she had that morning. Very small thing, but it stuck out to me.

    4) Maybe establish that Laina is in the kitchen at the start. She could lean across the sink to close the windows or something. OR could she be in another room--and have to run to the kitchen when bread burns?

    3) I'm all for Fiona giving her sister the silent treatment, as it creates immediate tension. Never having been good at maintaining the treatment myself, I get that she might slip up when something is burning, but I don't like that, in her first appearance, she speaks to Laina. Could she text her "Something's burning"? Or if Laina's not in kitchen, Fiona could call out the empty kitchen rather than directly to Laina. - Just a thought.

    4) Could you make it clearer that it's Laina who says' "Let me clean up"?

    5) She couldn’t bare (should be bear) the disappointment in his eyes,

    6) Similar to hammering heart, can you come up with a fresher image than metallic taste of blood? (These little bits of tired language really stick out because you have such a nice fresh way with words otherwise).

    7) Toward the end, when she runs outside, it might be good to establish that the storm has cleared (or not). The detail of the flame tree is another nice touch to set scene. I think you can definitely do more here, though, with sensory detail. You score points for including birdsong, but I'd love more specificity here: particular birds, maybe a lizard on the path, those details that will really create a vivid scene. I also wonder if sycamore is the best choice. Not sure their natural range extends to the coastline of Quintana Roo, though quick google search puts them in mountainous areas of Northeast Mexico.

    8) Finally, I'm curious as to why it's just Laina, Fiona, and their dying father. Perhaps add some little detail about the lack of other family--are they truly alone in the world (aside from Martha)? If so, that would really amp up the level of desperation. Again, not that we need to know everything in chapter one, but I wonder about her plan (now seemingly thwarted) to take Fiona with her to university. Even with a scholarship, that seems like a stretch...unless they're wealthy...or there's some other family somewhere? Some stuff to think about...

    I don't really have anything else major for you, as this is in nice shape. Hopefully these comments give you something to work with.

    All best,


  2. Hi, Nicole! Great start so far. I get a good feel of your basics. Your MC is a high achiever, low self-esteem, caretaker, overwhelmed and frustrated. Small Mexico town setting. Storm reflects her mood, dark and gloomy. And your MC's initial problems are clearly articulated (poor, dying dad, younger sister, struggling through school, etc). You've done a great job setting up your world and giving the reader a foundation to work with.

    One thing I would recommend is to put something that brings a spark of hope or joy. Right from the get go we get her life sucks, and then it sucks more, and then it sucks even more. I feel bad for her, but as a reader my first thought is...I sure hope this gets better quick because in any story we know that it's going to suck even more! I felt that you were getting there with the flame tree.

    You do use a lot of cliche phrases as Steve pointed out. Heart hammering in the ribs, stomach rolling, metallic taste...can you come up with something more unique and clever?

    The beans stuck out to me too. I don't think it would be so bad if there was either mention that the beans were the only meager food they had. Sourdough also stuck out to me as well. We have beans to signify they live in Mexico, but sourdough is not really a mexican poor person's bread is it? I don't know...just a thought.

    Laina has left the house...what about poor Veronica coming over? She bailed on her friend. As is this part really necessary? Seems like filler. I'm not sure what Veronica brings to the story, but if she's not a significant character, I'd cut her and utilize those extra words in your first five pages with more important material.

    I agree with Steve's comment about moving to Australia on a scholarship. In fact, I'm rather confused of their economic status all together. She's traveled to other countries, but now is in a broken down home in Mexico living off of beans, and still thinks she can transplant herself and her sister to Australia. I think either this needs to be explained or pick one class.

    She also contradicts herself. She mentions she's useless at home and later tells Martha that she's more useful at home than out in the world.

    Last thing, nothing really happens. You've used five pages to set up your world and introduce your character, but there's nothing really that draws me in to keep reading. It's missing that spark that makes your reader to want to turn to the next page to find out what will happen. I think with cutting the whole texting Veronica scene you might be able to pull in further scenes to get the story really rolling.

    As always, remember that comments are subjective and you as the author have the authority to sift through them and make the changes you feel are helpful. Hopefully my thoughts give you something to start with. Best of luck on your revision.

    1. Good job of setting up tension right from the start. The storm allows for the tension to build while the internet is down while she waits on pins and needles (pardon the cliché) for news of her grades. Overall, things keep piling on Laina keeping the reader wondering what else could go wrong, and, of course, more does go wrong.

      Your opening has the right feel but here’s something to think about. Flinching is a quick, nervous reaction to fear or surprise. Dark clouds do not spring up, they kind of float in or spread across the sky so flinching at them seems odd. Ringing her hands while she looked from her phone to the dark clouds or some other nervous physical manifestation of anxiety might work better.

      I know it’s a word choice thing but ‘tapping’ is kind of a happy word and this is a dark, worried moment. Maybe the raindrops and the sound they make could be more ominous.

      I don’t know if it’s a formatting challenge but the text messages would stand out from the narrative if they were italicized. If that’s not possible because of formatting restrictions, single quote marks could set them off.

      When she gets the bad news about her grade a shoulder shrug seems an understatement. She is really disappointed. Maybe her strength can drain out of her and she can fall into the couch—I am assuming she is in the living room but that’s not really made clear.

      When Veronica suggests she come over Laina doesn’t exactly jump at the prospect of her visit. Give her a moment of conflicting thoughts about that before she acquiesces and says ok.

      I wasn’t sure where Liana was in the house when Fiona told her something was burning. If she was in the kitchen the stove was smoking right behind her. If she was in the living room she would rush to the kitchen to deal with it. In any event, she would have been shocked by Fiona’s words and the realization there was smoke in the house. Might be useful to amp up that moment of shifting mental gears from self pity to dealing with a bit of an emergency.

      Fiona’s silent treatment is interesting. I would have liked to have a clue as to what that was about. I’d also like to know a little more about her father’s illness and the families travels. Obviously, you can’t tell everything in the first few pages but a word or two that he caught malaria in Malaysia or leukemia in Luxemburg would tell a lot with more back story on that when it works into the narrative.

      I think this is a great beginning to an intriguing story. I hope something I offer is of use to you.

  3. Hey Nicole, this was quite good. I like some of your descriptions, and you have a terse, clear style. We can understand who Laina is within the first page. We also get a good sense of the family dynamics.

    There were a few things that could be more clear. I might consider establishing that Laina is in the kitchen earlier in the scene, for instance. I think it would set up the burning sourdough a bit better.

    You also have Fiona telling Laina that "something's burning," but then a few paragraphs later mention that the pair aren't talking.

    I might consider adding a few more details throughout the story too. The ones you have are good. Sometimes they're a bit sparse though. Like when Laina's running outside is she getting wet? Are her feet stomping through puddles?

    All in all this was a good story. I want to know what exactly is wrong with the father and can understand Laina's frustrations.

  4. Hi Nicole!

    I sincerely enjoyed these first five pages. I think you do a great job giving us a taste of your character and the conflict--but you also create a really nice sense of mystery. I'm really intrigued to know what happened to her dad and why she has to take such good care of him. I also thought you had some excellent descriptions, especially of that burnt sourdough.

    I don't have many suggestions but I think it'd be interesting to have a hint at why her mom isn't in the picture. Also, it was really funny that you mentioned the beans in her stomach, and thought it could be even more entertaining if it was beans mixed with guac and sour cream.

    When Fiona comes in to tell her something is burning, I think she could be even colder about it. Or you could have a line like, "The first two words her sister spoke this whole week were to tell her she'd messed up."

    An additional thought I have is about the first line. I would expect someone to flinch in response to a flash of lightening or a roar of thunder, but not in response to clouds moving.

    I hope these comments help!