Sunday, November 3, 2019

1st 5 Pages Nov Workshop - Standridge

Name: Casey Standridge
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Hope's End

Andre Gide once said you can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

Wren Baker thought that was a ridiculous statement.

In her sixteen years of living, she had crossed many “oceans” without any courage or even desire to do so, yet life took her on its unfortunate path anyway.

She pondered these words from one of her favorite books as she gazed out at the ocean. Though it was a warm summer day, the Miami sun was lost behind angry gray clouds. A harsh wind stripped the heat right off her skin. Not the most pleasant day.

Wren’s watch beeped, signaling the end of her shift. She clambered down the guard stand and headed towards a less crowded strip of the shore.

Three years today, she thought. It felt like both a lifetime ago and just yesterday. She had to strain to remember the exact shade of her mom’s eyes. The sound of her brother’s laugh.  

She pulled the vial of her mother’s ashes from her pocket and sprinkled some in the water, as she had done each year before. She thought of Nathan, her twin, and wished she could do the same for him. But it had been three years, and they still hadn’t found his body.

Wren was pulled from her dark thoughts by the sound of crying. She looked down the surf and saw a girl, no more than eight, red-face and shrieking. A woman, presumably the girl’s mom, stood over her, scolding her about something. She pointed harshly over to where Wren stood.

Startled, Wren looked away, but the girl had already started walking towards her.

“S’cuse me, I…Can you…,” she stammered. “I lost my mommy’s keys trying to catch a fish, can you find them for me? I-I don’t wanna be in troub—” her voice cut out as she burst into more tears.

Wren felt for her. She’d had her fair share of lectures over her mother’s things being lost or broken due to the schemes she and Nathan used to pull. She smiled down at the girl.

“Hey now, don’t cry. I bet we’ll find them in no time, I’m an expert treasure hunter,” she said with a wink.

The girl relaxed a bit and gave her the smallest of smiles. She shuffled off in the sand, leading Wren to where she thought she’d dropped them.

Wren waded out into the warm water until it reached just above her waist. Her eyes scoured the sandy floor of the ocean, searching for a glint of metal. After only a few minutes, she caught a glimpse of something shiny through the rolling waters. She kicked at it in the sand but was disappointed. 

It wasn’t a set of keys. Just a shell, rough and scaly on one side and slick and shiny like a pearl on the other. 

Shrugging in defeat, she bent to retrieve it anyway. Her grandmother would love to add it to her bathroom decor. As her fingers closed around it, her skin prickled with goosebumps, and an unfamiliar man’s voice shouted her name. Wren flinched away from the thing, dropping it back into the water. The sharp voice cut out. She glanced around for the man who’d called her. The waters were empty. The shore was as well except the little girl’s mother, who didn’t appear to have heard anything. She trudged away from the shell with a sense of unease. 

She was about to continue her search, but as she walked towards the shore, she saw the girl, ankles deep in the water, waving a sparkling mass of keys at her.

Wren smiled as the girl skipped off towards her mom, her meltdown completely forgotten. It wasn’t the worst way to end a shift. She waded back to the shore, all thoughts of that eerie voice drifting away with the tide.

In her short bike ride home, the sun began its slow descent toward the horizon. Sunset was only a few hours away. She wiped off the sweat coating her forehead and pedaled faster, hoping to make this pit stop as quick and painless as possible.

She rounded the final corner onto her grandparent’s street and saw their old sheepdog, Pooka, galloping across the perfectly trimmed yard. Wren’s grandmother was chasing him half-heartedly away from her freshly planted flowers.

Wren smiled at them as she pulled into the driveway, and her grandmother gave up her fruitless chase and came to greet her.

“Oh, my dear, you’re back so late. I don’t know how things are done in France, but here you should really get home earlier,” she said sweetly, then led the way into the garage.

Wren followed, paying no mind to her grandmother’s unusual greeting. Grandma Ginger had had dementia for over two years now, doctors blaming the family tragedy for the early onset of the disease. For the past few months, she had thought Wren to be a foreign exchange student from France. How she came to this conclusion, Wren had no idea. She didn’t speak the language and had never even visited the place.

Wren parked her bike in the garage, careful to avoid her grandfather’s ancient but prized Ford pickup, and continued on into the house. She made it to her bedroom and changed quickly out of her lifeguard suit, swapping it for a simple t-shirt and shorts. Her only unique accessory was the golden locket she secured around her neck, the only valuable thing she’d inherited from her mother. She deftly braided her long pale hair and made her way back outside.

Halfway to the kitchen, Wren heard her grandfather before she saw him.

“Fore!” he yelled, a heavy thud echoing from his golf ball missing its target and smacking into the back door.

Wren grinned as he slowly made his way up the hilly backyard toward her. A dusty ball cap was thrown haphazardly onto his balding head. He wasn’t the most athletic—his bulging belly and heavy breathing from the twenty foot hike across the yard were evidence to that—but his love of golf kept him moving.

“Save some lives today?” He asked jokingly, pulling her into a bear hug and squeezing until it hurt.

“The usual,” Wren replied, shrugging like her job of a glorified beach babysitter was really that exciting. “Anyways, Grandpa, I can’t talk long. Selena will be here any second to pick me up for the movies, remember?”

“Right, right,” he said, nodding as if he did remember, though Wren saw the confusion in his eyes. She doubted he even recognized the name of her best friend right off hand. 

Lately he’d been forgetting lots of things, and Wren knew it wasn’t long until she had no family members left who knew she wasn’t French.

He stuffed his golf club back into its battered bag. “You kids be careful, no texting and driving. And no boys,” he winked, opening the back door for her as they heard a car horn honk.

“Gotta go,” she said, kissing her grandpa’s cheek and ran out the front door. 

Her grandmother’s shouts of “Au revoir!” followed her all the way to the car.


  1. Hi Casey! I am another of the participants this month, so I'm providing some rather inexpert opinion, but maybe you can get something useful out of it.
    There are some things in the piece that I love right away. The quirky grandparents, especially the idea that the grandmother thinks she has a French exchange student. That has a lot of potential. And the grandfather involved in some rogue small-backyard golf is excellent too.
    There are also some nice teasers to the rest of the story in here. The missing twin, the very brief step into the 'other world' through touching the shell - both intriguing.
    I'm not convinced about the opening line. The first thing I had to do after reading it was try and figure out who Andre Gide is, so I went off and had a side search on the Internet. I wasn't sure if this was a real person or a character in the story, so it kind of spoiled the impact of the first sentence and stopped me from continuing to read until I had figured it out.
    There is also a missed opportunity for some more introductory detail (and a bit of dialogue with a peer-aged person) when Wren gets down from her shift. There would be someone coming to replace her, so maybe you could take the opportunity there for a brief bit of dialogue to usher the reader a bit deeper into understanding Wren.
    Overall - liked it, it drew me in to the story, let me anticipate some mysterious things to come, and I got a feel for three characters already in the first five pages.

    1. Pat,
      Thank you so much for your advice! I'd had a funny feeling about including Andre Gide's name for that exact reason, thanks for letting me know how it comes off to a reader! Also the advice about having her speak to a peer is dynamite, thank you so much!

  2. Hey there! I have to say I loved this snippet! It really feels like its setting it up to be a great story. The only part I had a hard time (and actually had to re-read a few times) is the beginning. Maybe clarify a little more that she's a lifeguard on a public beach. Perhaps you could have her comment on her red suit with the beaches' name on it? Or have her phone beep signaling her shift change (this tells the reader its modern day) And as Pat said, I think having an exchange with the other lifeguard taking her shift would be excellent. Show us her inner thoughts about her job, the day, etc. And then you could show who Wren is as a person when she still goes to help the little girl EVEN though her shift is over. (Is she annoyed by this? or happy to help?)
    Then with the shell, maybe take a little more time with it. Really drive home how its unusual and shake your MC a bit.
    But overall I think its great and your voice is excellent!

    1. Sarah,
      Thank you so much! I agree with both of you, some clarification will help the reader understand Wren as well as develop her character better early on. Thank you so much for your comments!

  3. Hi! I really like how you portrayed Wren's inability to let go. Most people take ashes and scatter them all at once, but she goes every year and lets out a little bit at a time. This really shows that she is struggling with her pain. One area that as confusing for me was why the little girl asked her to retrieve the keys and why the mom was pointing at her. I didn't get this until the end, when it was made clear by the grandfather that she worked at the beach as a lifeguard. I think this should be made clear at the beginning so the girls request makes more sense. When she touches the shell and hears the voices, I think a clearer sense of urgency/confusion could be felt with shorter, snappier lines as well. I like how you tie chaos back into her life with the issues with her grandmother. Her life is a mess and she is doing her best to navigate it.

  4. Well done, Casey, for getting me wondering and wanting to find out more. I love love love that opening quote and Wren’s immediate negative response to it. It really sets her personality out up front.

    Now, what to change? Well, at the top, you say it’s YA Fantasy, but actually the first five pages read almost entirely like a contemporary (other than the brief shell incident). Of course, it’s absolutely fine to do that, but the way the opening few paragraphs go, I was expecting her to be in a fantasy world already, so when her watch beeped and she ended her shift, I was startled out of the narrative. So can you look at how to set her firmly in the contemporary world at the top of the previous paragraph– perhaps have her staring out to sea from the lifeguard station or something, so we aren’t taken by surprise.

    The depth of the trauma she’s been through is very nicely written, though be careful you aren’t doing an ‘info dump’ on us, telling us what’s happened to her family rather than showing us how she’s dealing with it on this particular day. Can she go find an empty part of the beach because she has something specific and important to do today, and then have her pull out the vial of ashes before you tell us she’s lost her family? Have her actions open us up to the story of her past, rather than the other way round.

    The incident with the shell and the voice is clearly the portal into the fantasy world for her and us, but you sweep past it very quickly and she doesn’t think about it again. I was left wondering WHY she instinctively dropped the shell and yet looked for who had called her, WHY she didn’t try to pick up the shell again to see if the same thing happened, and WHY she could still see the shell in the water yet she walked away from it, giving it barely a second thought. That kind of WHY questions aren’t me being intrigued, they’re me being annoyed that she doesn’t do the most obvious thing that any of us would do in that situation, ie pick it up again. Please can she go to look for it but it’s lost in the sand again? Or at the very least, can it bother her more to walk away? If this really is a fantasy novel, I’d like to spend a little more of these first five pages thinking about the fantasy before going back to her domestic life again.

    You portray her grandmother’s dementia very nicely and sympathetically. Her condition is very sad, particularly if it was brought on by the family trauma, but be careful implying that the grandfather is also losing his faculties too. Not all older people have memory issues, so can you think of other ways to suggest that her guardians don’t engage much with her life so she can have space to go off on her fantasy world adventure? Let each grandparent stand apart from the other one rather than putting them into one bundle of aged confusion.

    I’m so looking forward to reading the next version of this story next week!

  5. Hi Casey, 

    I'm one of your assigned workshop mentors. Thank you for the chance to read your pages! 

    First off, what I liked: your writing is clear, to-the-point but also carries a hint of melancholy. I really enjoyed that. No critique from me here, other than you may wish to speed up the pacing a little bit and add a tiny bit of internal monologue, to make it more personal to the reader. Otherwise, it sounds a tiny bit robotic in places. 

    Regarding content/narrative: 

    Starting with an abstract quote/idea like that can definitely work but it also risks alienating readers. Is Andrew Gide's work particularly important in this book? Do you ever go back to mentioning it? Does Wren talk about how Gide's thinking helped her overcome her grief, or something? I'm just not sure it works here... And then, Wren crossing many "oceans" in her life doesn't tell me anything about her. Then we move on to the discussion of weather... Perhaps, start with Wren's watch beeping and her shift ending and then she spreads the ashes. Can you say anything else here - is there some mystery to the deaths of Wren's loved ones? 

    My main concern here overall is that not much happens. (Sorry! I feel really terrible saying that but please hear me out...). In here, we've got Wren spreading the ashes, hinting at some possible mystery behind her family's deaths and then she picks up a mysterious shell which she promptly drops into water before going home. I know it's tough to really pack all the necessary info into your opening pages without overloading them to the level of the dreaded "info-dump", but I really would like you to give us a bit more of a hook here. Sometimes, a solution could be to actually "kill your darlings" and cut the first few pages or even your entire first chapter and start with the second one, where you're done with set-up and STUFF starts to happen. If you go this route, you'd need to incorporate some crucial info from chapter one into chapter two. Or you can just think of adding some more mystery and action to the first five pages that you have :) 

    I hope my feedback is useful to you! Please let me know in comments if you need any further clarifications. 

    Cheers, Katya

  6. Well done Casey. I felt extremely connected to Wren (great name by the way), and really invested in her story. I felt grounded in her little world straight away, I had a good sense of who she is, and that paragraph about her Mum and brother was heart-breaking and touching. You didn’t need to go into much detail, it was very clear what had happened based on what Wren was doing in the moment, it wasn’t back story. And I love the start, so powerful.

    A few things that I think would make your strong start even stronger.

    I want to pause on the shell a bit. What did the voice sound like. What did the shell feel like. Did Wren back away? Was she sure she imagined it? Could it come up again in her thoughts later? The more you can draw attention to it, the better expectation you give to the other readers that it is important, and the greater hints we get to the genre of the story.
    The other things are small. I think quote without the authors name. I wonder if you need more of a hint of sadness when she talked about her Grandmothers dimension first. And for someone who sounds quite sad at the start of the scene, she seems reasonably well adjusted and peppy. Which is okay, but I wonder if you need a little more of a sense of how the tragedy has shaped her? Mystery is good, but the mystery is the hook that will keep us reading, so you probably want to lean in to it more. More hints about how her Mum died, and why they couldn’t find the body would be good. Why she puts the ashes on this beach?

    But I enjoyed the story and would read on! So well done and I look forward to the next iteration.

  7. There's a lot of lovely symbolism in the opening. I think a little of it confuses the setting though. I am led to believe, by the setup, that she's on a boat, then she's not. So maybe make that a bit more clear upfront.

    You have a lot of great emotion in this piece and the deeper you get in, there's a lot of wonderful, grounding detail.

    One thing I might do to really enhance the piece is watch the strength of the words that are being chosen. Right now there are a lot of helper verbs, sometimes passive voice, and adverbs that aren't bad things, but in such a high volume can be restructured to offer a more active, deliberate feel to the story.

    Also a lot of times the uses of all the verbs of being can lead to a story that seems to gravitate more toward telling than showing. I am seeing that especially in connection in this to the times that Wren is feeling an emotion. Instead of stating what she's feeling, try to show it.

    There are other instances the deeper we get into the story of blocks of telling that being up past things. Try to space that out and bring some of that past in more naturally through showing it.

    Also, in this first scene, which gives me some idea of her character and past, I'm not really getting a sense of where the story is going or a current or impending conflict. So maybe focus more on the future of the story instead of the backstory in these opening pages.

    Best of luck to you!