Sunday, November 3, 2019

1st 5 Pages Nov Workshop - Pounds

Name: Sarah Jane Pounds
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: Rider in the Mist
To travel without purpose is to breathe without air.

Into the swirling snow, the horse and the girl rode on. At a brisk trot, they passed under the over-reaching branches of ancient spruce as they had a hundred times before. The girl maneuvered the horse around the familiar grove of aspens. Their spindly, naked arms bowed under the heavy burden of fresh powder. The stallion's nostrils flared, puffing little clouds of steam as they trudged through the snowy trail. A trill call echoed from far off, deep in the forest. 

The girl knew it. She could picture the bird, a bright crimson sparrow with yellow feet. And yet, she could not remember the name. Surely it had a name, as did every living creature. Some she knew at once. Like the trees, spruce, aspen, fir. But others left her puzzled. The name slipping just out of reach as she tried to speak it. She wondered what a bird like that with such a beautiful song could be called. The sweet trilling melody, however, did bring forth an image to her of a yellow-headed bird with a blunted beak and orange feet, but the name itself was lost.

Much was lost to her.

Although there was no road to travel on, the animals that roamed the thick woods had left a path for them to follow. The girl peered over the side of the black horse, glancing past the heel of her brown leather boots, and watched as the horse’s hoof prints were left behind.

There was no way to know for certain if they’d come by here recently due to the fresh snowfall last night. New snow fell here every night. Erasing all signs of those who’d passed before, including them.

But she’d grown clever over her time in the forest. 

She let out a deep sigh when they rounded a thick trunk, and her gaze instinctively traced up the backside of the tree. Long strips of bark were peeled away like a grisly wound, revealing the tender, flesh-colored wood underneath. 

The same marks as yesterday.

The same ones as yesterday.

And the day before.

And every other day she’d been here, in this forest of eternal winter.
She pulled the horse to a stop and climbed off. Her boots sunk up to her knees in the snow as she trudged the few steps to the enormous tree.
She took the small dagger from her belt, one of the precious few items she owned. A rare gift she’d found in this cursed wood. With measured practice, she scratched a long notch into the bark. When it was finished, she didn’t dare linger to appraise her work for fear of counting the number of marks that she’d made on days past. Quickly, she turned and mounted her horse.
He tossed his noble head, pulling on the reins as if eager to be moving.

“Easy boy,” she said and patted him on the neck. Her voice cracked as she spoke from its rare use. She tugged her hood back just enough so she could search the surrounding brush and branches. The snow drifted down in spiraling pirouettes from the gray sky. She’d lost track of how many days she spent in these woods. Day. Night. Day. Night. 

Always to keep traveling, pushing on to find the edge. The invisible wall that separated her from the rest of the world. She knew there must be other people, other places, besides this winter forest. Yet, as she’d made her marks on the tree, she ignored the sinking feeling that she was going in circles. Caught in an endless loop. She fought the urge to succumb to the fear that perhaps this was all a dream, and there was no invisible wall.
Perhaps, she’d never make it out.

All sunshine was muted through the thick cloud cover. Just an infinite sea of gray above an endless blanket of white. 

It was the memory of blue sky that pushed her, kept her from collapsing under the brutal weight of despair. Forced her to wake up every morning, saddle her horse, and continue on.
A glorious blue. Like the color of robin’s eggs. 


A smile formed on her chapped, frostbitten lips. She remembered them.
How they’d puff up their crimson chests and hopped about the dew-laden grass in search of worms. They’d built their nests in the bushy trees, a male and female. Their eggs were small, smaller than the eggs the chicken’s laid, and the color of the purest turquoise. Like my eyes. Someone’s voice chimed in her head. An image of her face reflecting back in a gilded oval mirror. “Look at your lovely eyes, dear one.” She’d been younger then, her hair dark mahogany, unlike the long silvery braid that lay between her shoulder blades, concealed under her hooded jacket. 

The horse’s pace picked up and his ears flicked front to back, listening.

Her legs tensed, gripping the saddle a little tighter. She stilled her breathing, hearing nothing but the soft thump-thump of his hoofbeats and her pulse thrumming in her ears.
The bird no longer sang his tune. The forest had fallen silent.

Thump, thump, thump.
They continued onward. Something buried deep inside her bubbled to the surface. 
Move faster. Find a way out.
The primal drive to survive pushed her. She wasn’t safe in the trees. The horse was fast, but only in wide-open clearings where he could stretch his legs at full speed. Among the dense trees, a full gallop wouldn’t only be impossible, it’d be deadly.

She’d stolen a glance over her shoulder, squinting through the falling snow for any sign of movement. Their lag behind them only a wall of white.

A curtain that fell a horse’s length behind them, shrouding everything but the darkest silhouettes of trees.

The stallion tossed his head and snorted in alarm. The girl leaned forward, feeling his body tense between her legs. She didn’t speak this time. When he acted like this, it was wise to keep quiet. His hearing far exceeded hers. She trusted it.

She trusted him. 

Raven she had called him when she’d first discovered him desperately pawing the deep snow. Like she, he’d been hungry. Scared. Lost.
Raven had been the only word she could recall to reflect such a coal-black color. He wasn’t the midnight blue-black of the night sky or the residual spent ash from a campfire, but black as the darkest recesses of a cave. The inky surface of the water at the bottom of a deep well on a moonless night. So stark had his coat been in contrast to the snowy scene around him. A creature void of color save but for a pair of intelligent garnet eyes that had so swiftly fixed their intense gaze upon her as she emerged from the thicket.

Her right ankle throbbed in response to the memory. A painful echo of her life before she’d found him. 

She did not like to remember the time before.  The days she’d wandered this cursed forest...alone. 
The stallion arched his neck, his black mane whipped her in the face, stinging the tender skin on her cheeks. 

From the veil of snow—a giant beast of ash and smoke emerged— crouching as it crawled towards them. Its amber eyes glowed from the gray muzzled head. Raven’s body lifted up and the ground fell away beneath them as he reared.


  1. Hi Sarah Jane! I'm a fellow participant in this month's workshop, so I have some comments, but not as an editor, agent, or even as a YA-aged reader. (I guess I'm an OA). Hopefully something useful for you in here.
    First, I thought the description throughout was nicely detailed. I can picture that it's cold and snowy, but not outrageously so, and very bleak. It also comes through that this is a not-Earth setting since there is some strange stuff going on.
    I get a little bit of a feel for the main character, but there are still a lot of open questions about her. That may be intentional mysteriousness but I find I wished I knew a bit more about her by the end of the five pages.
    I also don't get a feel for either the incident that got her into this predicament or some compelling obstacle that she will have to face. AT this point, it seems like she just wants *out* (which makes sense), but nothing more 'big picture' than that.
    I got distracted right away, struggling with the logic of the quotation underneath the chapter number. I was thinking that you can't breathe without air, so is this trying to say you can't travel without purpose? (If I could read a bit further in the story, maybe that's how she gets out of her confinement, but my first thought was 'of course you can travel without purpose. People do it all the time!) Anyway, once I was done over-analyzing that, I carried on with the story, but wished I hadn't distracted myself like that.
    I was also a bit confused about the early paragraph where the robin calls out. In the same paragraph, there are two separate parts saying the same thing (can't remember the bird's name/know what it looks like) and in the first description the bird has yellow feet and in the second description, orange. It's possibly just stupid reader confusion, but you might think about rewriting that paragraph.
    I also wished there was more detail about the bond between girl and horse. Like how did he come to trust her? Is there anything in that relationship that evokes some of her dim memories? Is the horse willful, or just follows her direction? There are a lot of ways insight here might help your story along, setting up later behaviour.

  2. Hi Sarah Jane!
    I really enjoyed your first paragraph. I got a feel for the setting, and it was so easy to picture everything in my mind. As Pat said, I was a bit confused by the paragraph about the birds. I'm not sure what you were trying to convey in this part, but maybe think about editing it a bit to make it easier for the reader to understand, particularly the colors. I like your story telling of just a simple walk, I can feel the girl's frustration of being stuck there as well as her despair, so great job showing those emotions!
    I liked the small references to things in her past, definitely keeps it mysterious for the reader and made me want to read on to find out more.
    For some reason (maybe because it's early for me), the sentence about the curtain falling a horse's length behind them confused me. After rereading it a few times, I understood you were just describing more of the setting, but at first I thought something really did fall since the horse tosses his head right after that.
    Over all, I was invested in the story and curious to know more. Great job!

  3. Sarah Jane – your use of language and your beautiful descriptions really make these pages sing. The bleak forest-scape, white with snow but with punches of color, is so clear in my mind now. Her tension too really affected me too, even just in this first short section, and I’m really intrigued by what she’s experiencing in this endless loop, and how she got there. I also loved your use of repetitive phrases to add power to her thoughts. So well done!

    However, even though you’re setting the scene beautifully of her repetitive days and her loss of memory, and her fear and desire to find what’s beyond the wall, that endless repetition has the potential to become boring quite quickly (and make us wonder whether the whole book is going to be as endlessly repetitive). So I’d suggest you tighten up the first few pages so that your final paragraph, when something really exciting and scary happens, comes earlier. At the latest, have it up at the top of page five, instead of the bottom. Give us the scary event earlier so we know for sure that something is happening to pull her (and us) out of the loop – you must make us mourn that we don’t get to see page 6!

    I’d also love you to give us more of a hint about why she knows to fear this loop, and how she ‘knows’ that there’s a wall and that there’s more out there – how does she know there’s “the rest of the world”? Can you add some more about why she feels this frustration and confusion, and about this gut instinct that there’s more, but it has to be more than just a memory of the blue sky?

    And since the horse is clearly an important ally, I’d also suggest you move the intro to the horse and his name up higher, so we understand he’s more to her than just a ride, perhaps put it after the ‘noble head’ bit? (Also, and this is nit-picky, but remember that a horse doesn’t ride (first line), only the girl does, and that horses have hooves, not paws, so he can’t be “pawing the deep snow”.)

    I love your use of birds, but I think you have one too many in this short section: there are two bird descriptions in para 2 which appear connected, but are of different birds, so perhaps cut one of them, so that the later mention of the robins feels more special (also, she casually compares a robin’s egg size to that of a chicken – how does she remember what a chicken is, given all the other birds she’s forgotten?).

    Finally, I’m confused by the two italicized voices you include, one in first person “my eyes” and immediately after, one in second person “your lovely eyes”, and then later an italicized instruction, “move faster”. Is this all the same outside voice, or is it her own inner voice? If you can make that clearer, if it’s just one inner voice, you probably don’t need any italicization at all – we are very clearly in her head all the way through, so her inner thought and self-direction fits in with no italicization. If it’s someone else’s voice, then make that much clearer, especially if she recognizes whose voice it is.

    Again, well done, this is intriguing and exciting and very beautiful. Can’t wait to see how you polish it up a bit more.

  4. Hi Sarah-

    I love your use of imagery throughout this piece! Very well done! It really sets the overall tone of dread and doom. I really enjoyed how you began with the protagonist investigating the markings on the tree trunks, and I was expecting she was a scout out investigating what was causing them. However, then I discover she was creating the marks as a way to try to track where she has been! Very clever!

    So, now I know she has been lost in this forest going in circles unable to find her way out, I also know that she has been here for a very long time, but it hasn't always been this way, and she remembers a time before when she was much younger when there were other people. There has been no others for awhile, just the horse, but what I haven't gotten is any hint as to why. I like a sense of mystery, especially at the beginning, but perhaps somewhere there might be a hint as to what caused this cataclysmic event? So Perhaps it's related to the beast that just appeared and it was just about to get to it, so maybe, if so, by tightening the pace, it could get there sooner. However, lovely piece, really love the use of imagery to set the mood!

  5. Hi Sarah,
    There is some really beautiful imagery in this passage, I had a real sense of the forrest and the clastraphobia the poor girl feels in her endless loop

    I thought the Robin idea was clever, it showed her confusion so clearly, and I think would have worked better without the other bird at all. If she is puzzling over a birds name and then, suddenly remembers Robin, then that is a huge indicator to the reader of how confused she really is.

    I feel like we needed more information. We get a little sense as to why near the end when she didn’t want to dwell about what had brought her there. But I think that leaves the reader a bit too un-anchored, even if we don’t need to know all the whys and hows, I think we need a little more information to have us invested in the girls story, and therefore more curious to find out the answer to the mystery.

    A few little things. Garnet suggests red eyes to me, which sounds a little spooky on a horse? I think we need more disappointment when she sees her old marks on the tree. I’d watch your adjectives, I think less is more when it comes to them. So make sure you don’t have more than one adjective in a sentence, and not too many in a paragraph. Particularly ones that might not be necessary (like bright crimson or heavy burden).

    But overall I think this has the makings of an intriguing story and I’m looking forward to reading your query to find out more about it.

  6. Wow! This is really lovely, descriptive writing perfect for high fantasy. I found it accessible and interesting.

    This read to me like a prologue likely due to the distanced storytelling. I think at some point you may want to come into a closer third person so we feel more of what the girl feels and connect closer to her. If this is a prologue - no worries! I just wonder if this distant storytelling can be sustained throughout a full book for a YA audience. I always go back to Graceling by Kristin Cashore which does fantasy so well and you still get a closeness with the character.

    For these lines the spacing gives it good emphasis:
    The same marks as yesterday.
    The same ones as yesterday.
    And the day before.
    but you lose a bit of punch with "the same ones as yesterday" since the phrasing is the same as previous but with a weaker word "ones." I think the same effect can be achieved cutting the ones line and keeping the rest with the intentional spacing for emphasis.

    Some of the other suggestions to tighten I agree with (heavy burden could just be burden) so the description is tight and still visual.

    Overall, really nice writing. Thank you for sharing.