Sunday, September 8, 2019

1st 5 Pages Sept Workshop - Hillman

Name: Amy Hillman
Genre: MG Paranormal
Title: Leave

 Chapter 1

The one-hundred-twenty-year old building blocks out the noon sun like an eclipse. It casts a monstrous shadow that blankets the surrounding wheat fields in darkness. Dad puts the Jeep in neutral and lets it coast to a stop while we crane our necks, unable to comprehend the whole building from this close. White pillars support a flattened roof, veiled by wild rose vines that threaten to take over one side of the entrance. 

I tug my ear buds out, letting them hang around my neck and push open the door. Heat laced with sticky humidity slaps me in the face. A rush of wind shoves the door back at me as if it’s shouting a warning to leave while I still can. Escaping the car becomes a vicious game of tug of war with legs that need to learn to walk again after riding in the car for twelve hours.
Dad trots around to our side to hold the door open for Mom. “Pretty neat building. Isn’t it?” he shouts above wind that roars loud enough to drown his voice to a whisper.
“For a place that’s been everything from an orphanage to an insane asylum,” I mutter, cramming my buds into my pocket.
Mom ruffles my shaggy hair that’s the same mop water brown as hers. “Jack, where’d you get that idea?”
“From the internet.” I kick a rock toward the building and it tumbles a few feet before it stops abruptly, like it doesn’t want to get any closer. “Do we really have to live here? Why can’t I stay with Grandma and Grandpa for this round?”
Dad takes a deep breath and ignores my question. “Smell that fresh air.” He exhales stretching his arms up over his head exposing his belly which makes me snort laugh. “And yes, we do. Come on we have things to get done before the veterans arrive.” Tilting my head to get a whiff, I don’t notice anything but sun burnt tar from the little two-lane highway and the chemical exhaust from the Jeep.

Mom side hugs me as she rests her head on mine to answer my question. “Because we’re a family. And because we want you to know what it is to make a real impact in the lives of others.”

I bite back the snarky comment on the tip of tongue. I want to say they can keep their impact and I’ll keep my friends, soccer team and bedroom. She pops the back on the Jeep and then slings her bag over her shoulder. Together my parents walk arm and arm toward the front of the building. They disappear at the top of the steps as if the monster swallowed them whole.  

The hot wind sneaks through my shirt drying my sweat and leaving me salty sticky. Rocks and dirt crunch under the wheels of my overstuffed suitcase until a pothole hidden by creeping weeds bumps the case onto its side. The handle twists out of my hand causing the case to belly flop into a mud puddle. Specks of dirt splash up my leg and the side of my cargo shorts.

My parents are too busy with unpacking to pay any attention to me, same as every other time we’ve relocated. Neither notice I’ve given up lugging the case toward our new home sweet home. They both scurry up and down the cement steps as if they’re running soccer drills, unloading the last of the boxes from the Jeep. The case, too heavy for me to turn over on my own, provides a quick spot to wait for someone to notice me.

The movers lower the lift on the back of the moving truck while my parents impatiently check their phones for reception. By the look on Mom’s face and the way she scrunches her nose before shoving her phone in her back pocket, I can tell the reception sucks.

A sliver of warmth crawls behind my ear like a snake and causes panic to worm down my back. I whip around, expecting to find one of my parents playing a joke on me. Nothing, but the red brick building lurks behind me.

“This wind’s terrible!” My mother says. My scruffy hair whips me in the face and I’m wondering if I should’ve agreed to that haircut Dad offered. One of the moving guys hands her a box marked with a red x, which for today means kitchen. Green checks are for my parents’ room and blue stars are for my room. Stars are yellow, but yellow is hard to see on cardboard moving boxes.

“There’s nothing to break the wind for miles,” Dad says, enunciating the word miles like it’s two words. His shirt whips and twists around him forcing him to tuck it into the sweatpants cut offs he reserves for moving days.
“Come on sport, lots more to do.” He flips my suitcase up right. “Shame about the mud.”

As if the wind hears our complaints, it rests. In the immediate still, nothing makes a sound. No chirp, no creak, nothing. The severe lack of all noise pushes my heartbeat into my ears. Complete silence is deafening when you’re used to the neighbor’s dog barking. 
“Better get to work, if we want to get done anytime soon!” he yells. His voice booms louder than needed. “Look at that. The wind stopped.” He ties the string to his sweatpants shorts.

The bulging suitcase slaps my heels with every step, forcing me to waddle like a duck to avoid scuffing my shoes. The case bangs against each slab with a gritty thump. A wheel lodges in a crack near the top and the case refuses to go any further. Leaning back, I yank with all my weight and the crack finally releases its grip. The porch catches my fall and bruises my tailbone. The case slams into the top step breaking off a wheel. A deep throated laugh echoes around me.

A giant oak tree guards the entrance and through the half-dead branches a man’s image peers out of a second story window. The shape blurs and shimmers like a reflection in wavy water. When I squint, the light bounces off the top of his skull only faintly covered with skin. I scramble backward, crawling like a crab and scrape my fingers on the rough cement. I tilt my head to one side in time to watch as the fog from his breath fades from the glass. I squeeze my eyes hard, hoping I’m imagining things. My chest heaves in short bursting huffs. I squint one eye at the window. No one’s there. I must be tired from the long trip.

Dad whistles his way toward me. With one hand shading his eyes, he looks to see where I’m gawking. One dried brown leaf twirls and tugs but the stubborn oak won’t let go. It acts as if it’s alive as it claws at its neighbors. It makes the same kind of scratchiness as someone folding over newspaper sheets. All of the other leaves hang motionless in the absence of the wind.
“That tree must be as about the same age as the building.”

I rub my tailbone. “I thought we were the first ones here.”

He holds out his hand to help me up. “We are. The veterans won’t arrive until next week.”


  1. I really like the atmosphere you build in these opening pages and how you pull the reader in using all the senses and the present tense. I definitely get an ominous feeling about the house - great start to a paranormal story.

    The descriptions are vivid and unusual - for example - "mop water brown" and "running soccer drills."

    Love Jack's voice with his "they can keep their impact" and noticing the cell phone reception sucks. He comes across well as totally unimpressed with this move.

    I have a few, minor suggestions. Maybe put "Jeep door" in the first line of the second paragraph as I initially thought it meant front door as you'd just mentioned the front of the house. In the first paragraph, or early on, mention that they pulled in behind the removal van, as the movers show up later on in your piece a bit unannounced - I'd got the feeling it was just the family and the Jeep to begin with. Finally, maybe use "Dad yells" rather than "he yells" after the dog barking bit, so the reader knows who is talking right away.

    This opening makes me want to read more to see who is in the window...

    All the best!

  2. You’ve created a lot of good intrigue with the “veterans,” who the man at the window is, where the family is and why are they there. These hanging questions are great to keep people reading. I got a good sense of Jack, his teenager behavior and his relationship with his parents. You have a lot of good imagery and sensory descriptions. I’m guessing the house figures in greatly to the plot of the story, but you have a lot of description of setting in this first section and might consider scaling back a bit. The information on Jack researching the creepy house’s history and his question of does he really need to live there get to the heart of the story- maybe restructure a bit to start with this. It would be good to know a little more about Jack- how old is he? You share he likes soccer-is he popular? A few specifics - Heat and humidity and strong winds seem contradictory. You also mention “warmth crawls behind his ear” - It’s already warm out so why would Jack notice more warmth? And finally, whose laugh echoes around him? Great start. You have a great visual sense to your writing. Good luck!

  3. Hi Amy, 

    Thank you for the opportunity to read this.

    I liked your pages - the narration is smooth and the atmosphere feels "just right* for what I imagine is a haunted house book. I actually don't have a whole lot to say in the way of critique other than perhaps the pacing could be fixed up a bit. At times it all feels just a tad slow and there's a bit too much exposition compared to action.

    The first and the second sentence of your opening paragraph communicate the same thing and slow down the beginning a bit. I don't think you need both of those.  

    In the paragraph “This wind’s terrible!” My mother says. My scruffy hair whips me in the face and I’m wondering if I should’ve agreed to that haircut Dad offered. One of the moving guys hands her a box marked with a red x..." while I'm assuming the last "her" implies the protag's mom but the last parent to be mentioned is Dad, so I think you need to make it all clearer, otherwise it read a bit funny.    

    When you say, "...a man’s image peers out of a second story window", it's better just to say "a man peers out ..."

    Overall, this is a strong opening!

  4. I loved the imagery and tone is ser immediately. The paragrapgh that begins the oak tree...seems lengthy for MG. Watch long paragraphs for this sge readers. Excellent job of drawing readers in to want more

  5. Hi Amy,

    I agree with the others that the tone and suspense already quite prominent in the first few pages does invoke the wish to continue learning about the mysteries of the house and its new (and old?) inhabitants- the family and the "veterans", however they may be connected to Jack and his parents.

    A little note- sometimes a little more depth in the dialogue with the parents would be nice, just like you did with "enunciating the word miles like it’s two words". It helps to already establish them as more relatable characters. Same goes for Jack, since we know so little about him - the color and style of his hair, and that he doesn't approve of moving all the time, understandable- I found it hard to feel associated with him.

    I loved the way you already established the hostile and maybe even dangerous character of the house through the rock that didn't want to get too close to it, or maybe the leaf that the tree wouldn't let go of (so close to the house?)- wonderful vivid impressions.

    Overall a strong beginning, I would be thrilled to read more of your story!

  6. You do a nice job at contrasting Jack’s feeling with his parents. I like the foreshadowing with the wind, car door, and rock. Everything tells Jack to stop, turn back, and go, but he can’t.

    How old is Jack? You show that he is smaller than his mother, his luggage is too large for him to manage, and the dialog between he and his parents (“Come on sport, lots more to do.” ) give a childish appearance, but it would be nice to narrow it down with a fact or two. For example, he tried to prevent the suitcase from scuffing the backs of his new shoes that he got after he finished seventh grade.

    “A giant oak tree guards the entrance, and through the half-dead branches a man’s image peers out of a second-story window.” I agree with Katya that this could be simplified. I also think the weather is a little confusing, and it pulled me from the story.

    Right off the bat, you give the tone of the story, and I am eerily drawn in. I want to know about the face. What is the real history of the building? Will Jack’s parents ever see the things Jack sees?

  7. OOOH, I like this. The face in the window that no one sees except Jack is a great beginning. I agree that there could be more dialogue between Jack and his parents--just a few lines--and you can clarify immediately that Jack's the only one who saw the man in the window.

    Moody and atmospheric!

  8. I love how immediately you establish the mood and genre here--as others have noted, this is very atmospheric. From the "monstrous" shadow cast by the house, to the warmth that crawls snake like behind his ear, to the eerie behavior of the wind and the tree branches. It gives a definite gothic flair to the story and hints at the (hopefully!) spooky story to follow.

    There were also some great bits of voice, like Jack reflecting that his parents can keep their impact and he'd keep his old friends. I liked the description of his parents scurrying like they're running soccer drills, which is both a great, vivid description and tells us something about Jack.

    I do feel like we're getting some of the setting description at the expense of the character development--I get some sense of Jack through his voice and descriptions, but I'm not sure how old he is, nor, aside from his general wish to be gone from this new place, do I have a very clear sense of what motivates him. Outside of his friends and soccer, what is this move costing him? I'd like to get a little more sense of his parents' personalities too.

    I think you can trim a little bit of the description without losing the mood. Watch for details that are doubled up--for instance, the second paragraph tells us about the wind and the humidity, and we get similar details in the later paragraph that starts "the hot wind." We also get the description of Jack's shaggy hair in two different places, where probably one would be sufficient.

    I also wanted to know a little bit more about what Jack's family is doing here--something about veterans? But if Jack can tell us that the building has formerly been an insane asylum, he can tell us why his family has landed in the middle of nowhere. I think understanding a little more of the context would also heighten the unexpectedly creepy nature of the house through the contrast with the mundane, non-mysterious reason for them being there.

    There were a couple of places where details pulled me out of the story a little bit. In the first paragraph, you describe the house as casting a shadow over the wheat fields--but unless the wheat fields come right up to the house (with no surrounding grounds, which seems odd for a house of this size), I had a hard time picturing this.

    In the paragraph that starts "the bulging suitcase," I had a hard time tracking the action. Initially, the description of the rocks and dirt and muddy pothole made me picture a dirt driveway, but this paragraph describes progress over slabs--is this the stairs to the house? I assumed so because the wheel of the suitcase lodged at the "top," but it wasn't entirely clear to me where Jack was.

    The description of the old man appearing at the window is nice and creepy (especially seen as it is through "dead" branches), but it seemed odd to me that after such a shock, it takes Jack a full paragraph to respond with his question--and instead he notices the movement of a dead leaf. (I like the dead leaf description, but the placement didn't make sense to me--it slowed down the action unnecessarily here).

    I think you've got a good start--I like Jack and I'm intrigued by the setting. As you revise, be watching for places to trim the phrasing to keep the action moving forward and allow you more time for characterization.

    Good luck!

  9. Hi Amy,

    I'm late on my critique. I apologize.

    Thanks for submitting your pages. You’re definitely a writer. Your prose has good rhythm, and the voice feels genuine. Your descriptions are very well done and I found this easy to read and fall into. I only have a few comments.

    When Jack hears that laugh you jump to the next paragraph. We need to be more in the moment here. Don’t leave us hanging. Connect this moment to the next one, when he sees the figure in the window. Here's an example:

    A deep throated laugh echoes around me. I look left, then right, startled. No one’s there, but when I turn around and look up at the house, a man’s image peers out of a second story window.

    Ok, you can do better but that’s the overall idea. You built some tension with that disembodied laugh but then it’s immediately taken away from us. Connect it.

    The other is a small suggestion. When you mention the leaf, I didn’t follow the mechanics of the paragraph. I think you need to remind the reader about the oak tree:

    One dried brown leaf ON THE GIANT OAK TREE twirls and tugs.

    Oh, one more. If you really saw some creepy dude staring out of a window you wouldn’t say "I must be tired from the long trip." That’s a bad habit we pick-up from movies, books and TV shows. It’s dumb. If that truly happened, we’d be like wtf was that! It would really freak us out. I want to see that true reaction from Jack.

    Other than that I think this is really good. Nice job.

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