Sunday, October 13, 2019

1st 5 Pages Oct Workshop - Loftis Rev 1

Name: Taelor Loftis
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Veil of Sparks

I am Cailan Murray and weak has never been my name—the affirmation rings through Cailan’s bones as her eyes scan the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristos in a last ditch effort to hold herself together. The chaos of students and parents scurrying around amidst a maze of boxes, furniture, and other various belongings becomes a distant reality as her eyes search the horizon for anything to focus on to settle her mixed emotions. This shouldn’t be hard to find, considering she’s often seen an enigmatic glimmer between the airy aspens and stately piñons of this northern New Mexico village.
Aspen Springs, with its beautiful and haunting surroundings, has always been the kind of place that makes her peer a little more closely at things, convincing her that she’s glimpsed the unfamiliar sky of some other world beyond her own or noticed a phantom sparkle swimming in the depths of a passerby’s eyes. Across the parking lot, someone’s possessions tear through the bottom of cardboard box and scatter across Aspen Springs University’s cobblestone pavers, echoing off the granite, moss-covered buildings, tethering her back to reality. College move-in day is in full force, but for Cailan it’s come to an end—her few belongings tucked away safely in her new dorm room, and her uncle readying himself to leave. Despite the anxious excitement buzzing through the atmosphere, today serves as a gentle reminder of times spent with her mother hiking these very mountains, and as a whispered promise to believe that she is not sorrow, that she is not pain, and that her past is what has happened to her, not who she is, and not who she will become.  
“Are you all right?” her Uncle Oliver asks, searching her stormy eyes for the truth they both know her words won’t say. “You look just like Fiona when you get lost in your thoughts like that.” His voice is calm and smooth against the chatter and commotion around them as he speaks of his older sister.
“I’m…good,” Cailan murmurs half-heartedly while flashing an even less stellar smile. She supposes another half-truth tagged on to the endless stream of them she’s told throughout the years won’t really matter. Indeed, she’s not even sure she has the ability to express how she really feels anymore.
And while Ollie’s crystal blue eyes seemingly search the pages of her frayed and tattered soul, a sharp talon of a memory claws its way up from the dregs of her mind like a nightmare sprung to life—her mother’s funeral on an unseasonably cold spring day. She pushes back against that memory, willing it to fade into the darkness where it resides. But her relief is short-lived. Another memory replaces the first—this one a still-life image of Ollie’s two-bedroom house in Williams, the home they’d shared for the last eight years.
Cailan swallows hard against a sob rising in her throat, fixing her stormy eyes on the ground and absentmindedly toeing at some loose gravel. Ollie starts to speak but she waves him off and cuts in. “You’re the only family I have left.” She wipes at a single tear that breaks free. “Mom was the last person I ever said goodbye to.” Her voice cracks on the last few words and she feels the endless well of emotions, emotions she’s meticulously caged inside of her for so many years, working their way up from the depths of their vault, threatening to consume her. “I’ve been saying goodbye to people and places my entire life. I don’t want to ever say goodbye again.”
Furious at herself for allowing tears to form, Cailan kicks the pile of loose gravel towards Ollie’s truck. He peels himself from his resting spot against the old, blue Ford, nervously adjusting and readjusting his worn and faded ASU cap atop his sandy curls, before embracing her in a giant bear hug. His arms tighten around her to the point where she finds it difficult to breathe, and as her tears betray her, spilling over the seams of her eyes and slipping down her face in a silent flood, the soft knit fabric of his t-shirt collects them.
Cailan feels Ollie’s words resonate through his chest. “Cai, I think you’re worrying about too many things you shouldn’t be worrying about today. You’ve got this.”
When Cailan’s trembling slows and the nightmarish memories grow dim, she releases Ollie and dares to meet his eyes. His lopsided grin stretches across his face, a trait he shares with his sister. For a moment, the bitter taste of jealousy coats her mouth as she thinks about how much he resembles her mom and how little she does.
Ollie’s gentle voice pulls her from her envy. “Don’t be afraid to have fun, Cai. You have your whole life to be adulty and serious. Enjoy your time here. You only get to do college for the first time, once.”
“I promise I’ll try—will—I promise I will have fun.” The sound of these words tumbling from her mouth are strange and foreign to Cailan. She’s always been more of a work first and play never type of girl, though she supposes Ollie is right. After all, her mother’s memory lives here, nestled amongst the grotesque gargoyles with their ever-watching eyes and whispering through the pale, silvery leaves of the towering aspens.
As Ollie makes his way around his truck, Cailan takes a wishful glance at the Sangre de Cristos surrounding the sprawling, gothic campus, her eyes climbing higher and higher until nearing the top of the tallest peak. It’s there, in the midst of the dense pines, that she spots a flicker of light—a vibrant indigo spark against an evergreen canvas, vanishing before fully forming. Her blue-grey eyes linger on that spot, anticipating something more—an answer, perhaps, that there’s more to life than what’s perceived.
Cailan’s mind wanders to glimmering memories of moments like these throughout the years—moments where she feels more than sees veils of worlds beyond her own. She wonders if her mother saw them, too, as she always had a fondness for these mysterious mountains.
The sound of Ollie’s rusted truck door slamming shut pulls Cailan from her reverie.
He leans across the tattered bench seat speaking to Cailan through the parted passenger window. “Cai,” he begins, “I won’t say goodbye. Goodbye is permanent.” Again, his lopsided grin spreads across his friendly face. “So instead, I’m saying later.”
And in the words between his words Cailan finds grace against her fears. “Later,” she says, daring to let a smile slip across her lips.
As she listens to the old Ford’s engine echoing off the granite buildings as it winds its way down the street and out the main entrance of the university, Cailan vows to herself that she will carry on in her mother’s memory and chase the secrets of these mountains.


  1. Okay, woah, this reads like a completely different writer than the first submission. There's a lot more to chew on here, its more lyrical, and there are a lot more descriptions.

    I think this is a great improvement. I was set in a place immediately, and I wasn't left wondering what's going on for as much as I did in the previous scene. That being said, I don't wonder if there's too much in that longer second paragraph. Be careful, that for YA, you don't want to get too heavy with the prose, as pacing is so important. I also think with the hint at the magic you note later, with her seeing something, you might not need the first mention of magic in that second paragraph. (I do see that you're trying to show that this isn't contemporary, and I think just that tiny dash is enough for now).

    I also think Cailan gets lost in memories one too many times. It's very hard to do in the beginning of books because characters need forward momentum so reader can sort of "get on the ride" of their story. We have that here, but she gets lost in memories twice, and I'm not sure we need it to happen more than the once. You might just try to combine it into one instance, where she sees the glimmer, is thinking about her mother, about loss, and the magic, and then ollie pulls her back -- because in introductions, the now is more important than the past -- we have the whole book to learn about the past.

    The only other thought is be careful about being too heavy handed with emotions. I felt there was a lot of it told to me at times where you showed it anyway, so you might not need it.

    "Cailan finds grace against her fears" is shown with the smile, and could be shown more with a sigh of relief and a nod, or something.

    She goes through a lot of emotions here -- and I am of the opinion that less is more, so I'd almost consider pulling back in a few places and focusing more one specific feeling. (she goes from, I am strong, to being scared, to I don't know how to express emotions, to sadness about saying goodbye, to anger at being sad, to jealousy about ollie, to remorseful about not being the fun girl, to hopeful about the magic, to happiness or relief about saying later.)

    It could just be me, so see what everyone says, but for me, this was a little too up and down, to where it comes across a touch melodramatic now.

    I know I said a lot, but seriously, this is such an improvement from the first!

  2. Taelor, first of all, thank you for your feedback last week! I tried to use everyone's comments when rewriting and everyone was so spot-on.

    Wow, I loved this! I really loved the line, "a whispered promise to believe that she is not sorrow, that she is not pain, and that her past is what has happened to her, not who she is and not who she will become." Ok, I'm in her corner, now!

    I'm also getting the "glimmer" of fantasy. In paragraph 1 it's alluded to, then strengthened in paragraph 2 with the "phantom sparkle swimming in the depths of a passerby's eyes" and again in the "grotesque gargoyles" and all of paragraph 13 and ending with "chase the secrets of these mountains." You made the hairs on my arms stand up. I'm intrigued and I'm wondering what the magic is in this YA fantasy. Nature-based? Gothic and monstrous? A combo?

    That said, take a look at your overall sentence constructions. This time around, they're pretty long. I LOVE a good long sentence, but they tend to scream "Adult book" not "YA book" and you don't lose a thing by using a period and creating two shorter sentences, when possible.

    I'm also a lover of metaphor and simile but try to limit to one or two really powerful ones in a passage as long as this. It's hard to do, and I can't recommend which to cut, that'd be up to your writing style and character's voice.

    There's one moment when you tell me something you also show. Paragraph 7, "Furious at herself for allowing tears to form," you follow with her kicking the loose gravel. Keep one or the other, but as a reader I don't need both to tell / show me she's angry. Not all telling is bad, but I always try never to repeat something unless a character is deliberately repeating something in dialogue. (And I fail to see many repetitions in my own writing!)

    In paragraph 9, I wondered about the sentence, "For a moment, the bitter taste of jealousy…" Why jealous? I'm just not sure that's the right sentiment here. My mother died 2 years ago, and when I call my Aunt, her sister, I am struck, filleted to my breast bone, at how her voice, her accent, the tone and pitch of her speech, her pauses, everything just sounds so much like my mother. But I'm not jealous. You mention envy in the next paragraph, and both are extremely ugly emotions. They may be what you want to communicate here, but I got more of a sense that Cailan is longing, wishing desperately, for her mother when she looks at Ollie. He's so close to her, but not her, it hurts.

    Only one last little, nit picky thing. I know what Sangre de Cristos means, I read it and continued without pausing, but others may not. You mention it a second time, in paragraph 12. Maybe include the English translation on the second reference? It adds to the dark tone and mood of the setting, so I think it's important for readers to not gloss over it because they don't know Spanish.

    I'm impressed and I can't wait to read more.

  3. Hi Taelor!

    I think your style is unique and writing is very detailed. However, I think sometimes it's a little too detailed. Sometimes I find myself getting lost in the description of all the emotion. I think if you toned some of it down, it would naturally sound a little more like YA.

    I think I'd also love it if you could find a way to bring in more of the magical elements into these 1st 5 pages. The way you string words together is so lyrical I forget this is a magical story as it almost comes off as more contemporary at first. Once we get to the sentence with "a vibrant indigo spark against an evergreen canvas" I get firmly grounded in that this is a fantasy and it becomes clear for me and I settle in.

    One last thing, I dont know that having your character name herself in this first line is the best idea. I did this in an old manuscript and was told it was cliche. Just a thought, maybe our fellow mentees feel differently.

  4. Taelor, yeah, this is great. I'm so pleased with the way you framed the scene. We got right into the action of the story and the world you build around Cailan is concrete, visible. You've done a tremendous job. What's so interesting to me is how your choices in description created this specific, powerful tone that made the vibe all-told so much darker than it was in your first draft of this thing. It's like you found the voice of your book!

    I think what I'd like to see at next week is just a dial-back. You've got the lyricism turned up to eleven through the whole thing, now find a balance so that your metaphors and fabulous descriptions have big impact when it's important for them to have big impact. This is one of my favorite things to do as a writer (cull after over-writing a little bit). Let's see how much you can make this thing sing.

    Great job, Taelor.

    1. Thank you so much! I agree with dialing back. I can certainly see places where this needs to be done.

  5. Hi Taelor,

    It's been fascinating to read your revision. The progress and evolution of your writing are evident and I'm so thrilled to see these pages take shape!!

    (I can see you've gone in the opposite direction with "naming the protagonist dilemma" here - and it works!)

    Regarding this particular sentence: "This shouldn’t be hard to find, considering she’s often seen an enigmatic glimmer between the airy aspens and stately piñons of this northern New Mexico village." - I don't think I know what this means, and I suggest you cut it.

    I (continue to) love, love, LOVE the voice! It's now become more precise while also remaining lyrical. This is perhaps the most unique voice I've ever read during my time as a 1st5pages mentor.

    This sentence is so good: "After all, her mother’s memory lives here, nestled amongst the grotesque gargoyles with their ever-watching eyes and whispering through the pale, silvery leaves of the towering aspens."

    Ok, so the connection you've now made clear between Cailan, her mom and this campus/location is PERFECT. Perhaps it's worth adding something to clarify Cailan's feelings and motivations at this point. Is going to this university more for her than just about getting education, right? I'm sensing it's got something to do with getting some sort of closure with her late mom, plus dealing with some supernatural mystery.

    Here's what you could do to solidify your supernatural hook... (just a suggestion!) Make Cailan see something odd right there, very close to her: perhaps someone passes by and she sees that this person is something else/clearly not human (make it relevant to whatever your mystery is, of course). She then gets distracted/spooked and her uncle has to get back her attention, and then in her mind she asks herself whether this campus is really more than what it seems and maybe her mom knew a secret and now it's time for her, Cailain, to find out what it is?

    I'm suggesting the above to be used instead of what you have her see at the moment ("It’s there, in the midst of the dense pines, that she spots a flicker of light—a vibrant indigo spark against an evergreen canvas, vanishing before fully forming. ") which is good but also too vague - to my liking at least. Could be just a color illusion or something!

    In summary: great work! Just a bit more finessing of the mystery element/hook would do the trick. I can't wait to see your pitch for this book!

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback! I have to say I struggled, really struggled digesting some other comments from last week concerning my lyrical style/voice. While I understand that no piece of writing is for everyone, I couldn’t completely change my voice. It’s who I am as a writer. It’s organic. It is never something I do purposefully or push for, it just happens.
      I also think that we don’t give teens enough credit at times. The thought that some types of prose are just too much for them kind of gets under my skin (as an English teacher). I spend every day of my life with teens, teaching and coaching. I see what they read, I know what they enjoy, I witness what draws them in. And I think if we are too quick to believe that they aren’t able to enjoy certain styles, then we aren’t giving them enough credit.
      I appreciate your kind comments and I will certainly make the suggested changes! I, too, am looking forward to the potential final product!

    2. No worries at all! But yeah, I acknowledge it's never an easy task to address multiple streams of feedback... I work in higher education, and my students also have to address multiple streams of feedback, including peer feedback. I advise them to consider ALL feedback but only implement changes that ring true to them. But when they disagree with a particular piece of feedback, I ask them to reflect on why (they think) this feedback was given in the first place - I find this is a good self-reflection exercise). Anyway, I really think you have a lyrical and unique voice and you don't want to lose that, but also there is the matter of pacing and releasing info at the right time, which can be a tricky business, regardless of whether this is YA or not.. The bottom-line is that your pages are beautiful and I enjoyed reading and reviewing them! x, Katya

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  7. I love what you've done here. We get so much more of your style and I love it! I'm not necessarily in agreement with the other comments that it needs toned down for the sake of writing for ya. I think there are maybe a few spots where if it doesn't move the plot it could be toned down but I liked the descriptions.
    I'd love for you to expand on this section some:
    Cailan’s mind wanders to glimmering memories of moments like these throughout the years—moments where she feels more than sees veils of worlds beyond her own. She wonders if her mother saw them, too, as she always had a fondness for these mysterious mountains.

    I feel like this is hinting at the conflict and stakes maybe? Is she at this school because of the fact she can move through different worlds? Was her mother at this school? What does she mean by veils? This feels important but almost gets lost in other metaphors.

    All in all well done.

  8. Taelor, I had a family emergency come up last week that kept me from critiquing. I feel terribly for not getting back to you so I'm sending you a detailed critique via email to make up for it. It should be in your email by midday.