Sunday, January 5, 2020

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Gonzales

Name: Gina Gonzales
Genre: MG Fantasy
Title: Talented

It was cold behind The Teeth. 

Madge shivered against the slippery white bark of the cypress trees behind her and squeezed her sister’s hand twice.

Love. You.

Three squeezes came back.

Love. You. Too.

When the girls decided to steal Daddy’s pirogue and head into the swamp and steal his talent back from The Narluu, they needed a way to communicate in the dark. Two weeks wasn’t enough time to learn actual sign language, so they started with a family gesture and added a collection of taps, squeezes, pinches, and scratches. And it was working. So far.

Normally, Madge liked being shadows. Some she chose, like the nooks and crannies around town to read in and escape tourists, and others she was born into, like being the sister of the most talented person in the world, her older sister Bryce. But despite her experience with shadows, Madge couldn’t have prepared herself for sitting in the dark on a heap of bones for two days waiting to steal from The Narluu. It was Bryce’s idea of course, and just like always, Madge followed along.

Letting out a controlled breath, Madge carefully reached into the right pocket of her jacket (right for raspberry). Her fingers moved deftly as she handed the packet of jelly to Bryce before grabbing a lemon curd one for herself (left for lemon). Quiet food.

Madge took organization seriously, and her system was simple but effective. Because of it, they didn’t have to fumble around in the dark. She tore open her packet and quietly ate its contents. The curd added a burst of bright tart smell to the air before melting into the dankness. 

Madge shifted, trying to stretch, knowing Bryce must feel as sore as she did. But tonight was the last night, and if all went to plan they would start home and leave this suffocatingly dark hole. Back to Daddy and Uncle Dave and Coralynn and James. She longed to be back under the grey cypress that bent over like elderly grandparents gazing into a cradle. She was even looking forward to being bitten by skeeters and getting her boots stuck in the mud. Anything was better than this.

The bark of The Teeth started to vibrate. Both girls froze, straining to listen. There was a sound in the distance, that grew louder and louder until it surrounded them like they were inside a beehive. The sisters leaned into each other, holding each other tight to keep from screaming. The curd sat on Madge’s tongue like a lump.

Fais-do-do. Fais-do-do. Fais-do-do, she chanted to herself. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Be anywhere. Anywhere but here. 

The buzzing sound changed into erratic clicks that came from all over like the dainty feet of a metal-booted spider exploring its surroundings. Madge flinched. She hated this part. No one knew what The Narluu looked like, only the goosefleshy feeling you got when he was about to take a talent from you. When they were little, they used to stay awake after Daddy would turn out the lights trying to scare each other with their guess of what The Narluu looked like. It started out fun, but always ended up with Madge slipping into Bryce’s bed, and trembling under the covers clutching her flashlight.  

No one in the history of Narlton had ever been inside the nest. It was forbidden to bother the monster at all, which was of course why Bryce just had to. That and that she was so awesome she had nothing to lose. If The Narluu did steal a talent from her, she had five more to replace it and in two more years she’d be going away for college. Leaving behind Madge who didn’t have any talents and their Daddy who had just lost his.

Click. Click. Click. 

The legs, or what she imagined as legs, slid right over them and paused. Madge held her breath and squeezed Bryce’s hand with all her might. Blood rushed in her ears and she prayed that if it was going to eat them, it would be quick. Finally, blessedly, The Narluu squeezed through The Teeth, back into the air and the swamp to collect its tax from its many territories.

Madge exhaled loudly and Bryce elbowed her in the side. She was so relieved, she felt like she could pass out right there. But then her sister scratched a nail against her thumb.

Let’s go.

For the past two nights they’d been exploring the nest whenever The Narluu left so they could get a feel of the layout. The talent room waited just around the next bend. Madge could tell immediately when they entered. There was a slightly sweet smell in the room, the result of a hole in the ceiling, that allowed in some fresh air. Madge wanted nothing more than to stand there and breathe in, but Bryce pulled her along to the center of the room and tugged on her pinkie. Madge reached into another left pocket (left for light) and pulled out a flashlight. She held it upward and paused, her mind begging her not to crack the darkness. But they had to. There was no other way to find Daddy’s talent. 

Madge clenched her jaw and clicked. Spots bounced before her eyes and it took a few moments to get used to seeing again and a few more to convince her what she was seeing was real. 

The room had rounded walls thick with tangled vines and roots stuffed with jars. The amount of odds and ends reminded Madge of her friend James’ workshop. He would be ecstatic to be here and poke around. She on the other hand, didn’t want to know what was in them. The floor was a mixture of dirt, mud, and something grey and fluffy that Madge was hoping was animal hair. Above them tinkling like wind chimes were the talents.

They hung down in lines, straight as soldiers. Sometimes only one Talent hung at the end of the string like a plum-sized bead, while others were laced with so many that they hung all the way down to the floor. They blanketed the ceiling, creating a moving mass that seemed to shimmer from the air coming through the hole.

“I told you. It looks just like the stories,” Bryce whispered. “Hurry, look for Daddy’s.” 

Madge moved to the other side of the room. She took a round talent in her hand and rubbed away the thick coating of dust from the hard brown bead the size of a donut hole. Words were stamped into each surface — intelligence, foresight, swimming, healing, cooking, tracking, painting, strength… and on and on.

It was strange to be holding evidence of the pact the town had made with The Narluu centuries ago. Talent was the price they paid to live and use the swamp, and it collected every month on the full moon without fail. Surprisingly, most people were ok with it. It was like a boogieman story that didn’t mean a whole lot until your time was up, and suddenly your track star brother couldn’t run without tripping or your uncle couldn’t sing anymore. The Narluu stole the best of you in pieces until that ability was gone forever. 

Madge continued moving through the Talents. Running. Persuasion. Strategy. Each was harder to release
than the last. With these she could be anyone. She could be anything. She could be like her sister. She could save the town.

19 comments:

  1. Hi Gina,

    I hope I’m doing this correctly, but here goes:

    Firstly, I really enjoyed your opening pages and found your descriptions, vivid.

    I found a few sentences a little long. They may be confusing for a middle-grade or may just have more punch if split:
    1. Some she chose, like the nooks and crannies around town to read in and escape tourists, and others she was born into, like being the sister of the most talented person in the world, her older sister Bryce.

    2. There was a sound in the distance, that grew louder and louder until it surrounded them like they were inside a beehive.

    3. Madge wanted nothing more than to stand there and breathe in, but Bryce pulled her along to the center of the room and tugged on her pinkie.

    4. Spots bounced before her eyes and it took a few moments to get used to seeing again and a few more to convince her what she was seeing was real.

    5. Sometimes only one Talent hung at the end of the string like a plum-sized bead, while others were laced with so many that they hung all the way down to the floor.

    6. She took a round talent in her hand and rubbed away the thick coating of dust from the hard brown bead the size of a donut hole.

    7. . It was like a boogieman story that didn’t mean a whole lot until your time was up, and suddenly your track star brother couldn’t run without tripping or your uncle couldn’t sing anymore.


    Also, Please tell us what Madge’s fear is (Madge was hoping was animal hair) .. and not?

    I found the piece engaging. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Gina,
    I love how creepy you make your Narluu. I tried to picture along with Madge what it exactly it looked like, a giant spider clicking along, we'll see :)

    A few areas that I had to re-read:
    "Madge liked being shadows" After reading the paragraph I understood what you meant but I wonder if it would read better if she "liked being in the shadows" or she "liked being a shadow".

    "Madge clenched her jaw and clicked". I understand that to be the flashlight but I think being clearer about that would help the reader. At first I thought she clicked her jaw/mouth.

    "roots stuffed with jars" This might be exactly what you are trying to describe, but I had to re-read this sentence a few times. I usually think of items being stuffed into jars, not jars being stuffed into other items. Is she able to see through the roots to notice that they're stuffed, was my initial thought.

    Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kristin,

      I'm banging my head against the table right now. You're right, I missed a few words and it completely changes the meaning of that paragraph. It should be, "Madge liked being in the shadows" like you said, referring to her being an introvert and being a younger sister. Good catch!

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Hi Gina!

    First of all, I love these lines...

    Madge shivered against the slippery white bark of the cypress trees behind her and squeezed her sister’s hand twice.

    Love. You.

    Three squeezes came back.

    Love. You. Too.

    It is full of imagery and gave us a glimpse into the relationship between the sisters.

    There were a few things I was confused about: the Teeth (not sure exactly what it was... the cypress tree? an entire forest? something else?) and I did have to look up the term pirogue because I was not familiar with it (if I hadn't I probably would have never been able to discern that it was a canoe).

    I was also very intrigued by the Narluu and the room that held the stolen Talents. In particular, your description of the Talents dangling in the room was beautiful.

    I almost wonder if you could hold off on some of the longer explanations on where the girls were from and why they were there and instead, immerse the reader more in the current place and time. Telling me all about their home and family made me wonder why they were the ones to go on this quest. I know you mentioned that it was her sister's idea and it seems like they snuck away, but if they were there for two nights, I imagine their family sending a search party or something. Anyway, all this was going through my head as I was reading. So, holding off on some of those details could help the reader stay focused on the present place/time.

    This would also give you the word count to show a little more of who Madge is (aside from Talent-less and organized) and the relationship she has with the sister. I assume, given the first lines that it is a very loving relationship but it also seems like there could be tension since her sister has all the Talents and she doesn't.

    Overall, I am very intrigued by your Talents premise and would read more.

    I hope I was of some help.

    Star

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Gina,

    Thanks for submitting your pages. This is interesting. Great opening. You definitely have a cool concept. The idea of Talents being tangible things is pretty cool.

    I had to look up pirogue. Would it be better to use the more common word, canoe? The word “steal” is used twice in one sentence, something my editor calls an “echo.” Perhaps: When the girls decided to take Daddy’s pirogue and head into the swamp to get his talent back from The Narluu…

    I think it would be helpful to dial back a bit and introduce this world a little more slowly. There’s a lot of info in the first two paragraphs. There’s a passage near the end that might be better served if it came earlier:

    Talent was the price they paid to live and use the swamp, and it collected every month on the full moon without fail.

    Once you set up how things work, it’ll be easier for an agent/editor to get involved.

    Normally, Madge liked being shadows…
    I don’t understand this paragraph. Is Madge’s talent being a shadow. If so, need to find a more easily understood way to express it. Just come right out with it: Madge’s Talent was manipulating shadows, or something like that. You get the idea.

    What is The Teeth? Early on it reads: It was cold behind the Teeth. Then later, it says the bark of the teeth. I don’t understand.

    She longed to be back under the grey cypress that bent over like elderly grandparents gazing into a cradle.
    Great line!

    Overall, you’ve got a great concept here. It just needs to be organized a little better. Remember, readers know nothing about this world or how it works. You have to take them by the hand and introduce it bit by bit. Don’t give too much info at once or it’s overwhelming.

    Looking forward to seeing where this goes. Nice job.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ron,

      Thank you for your comments. I actually read Hoodoo as a potential comp title for this piece, so this is very exciting:)

      I've received several comments on using the word pirogue. I completely understand (it's not in my vocab either!), but I liked that this was the word for a Cajun boat and I wanted to imbue some pieces of the swamp where ever I could. Same with the Fais-do-do lyrics. I guess my question is, does it add enough to the feel of the piece to leave it in and have the reader infer the meaning and/or look it up, or are the cultural elements in my own head and it would be easier for all if I just switch it out for canoe?

      Thank you!

      Delete
  6. Hi Gina,

    Thanks for sharing your story and letting us read it. Here are some of the thoughts and impressions:
    • I really like the first couple of lines (the exchange between the sisters) - it sets the mood.
    • I also like the sentence: "When the girls decided to steal daddy's pirogue..." It's a great set-up (might be good to use in your pitch).
    • Characterization of Madge is beautifully done (the part about the shadows and the organization and how she feels about her sister). Really get a good sense of who she is.
    • Does the Teeth refer to the cypress trees? Wasn't sure.
    • I like the mysterious references to the Narluu and to Talents but I'm wondering if it's too mysterious? Maybe reveal a little bit more about each earlier on?
    • The moment when the Narluu passes by them is great (especially the "click. click click.") Maybe give the girls a glimpse or partial glimpse? Might create more tension.
    • You have some great description of the Narluu's lair: "and tinkling like wind chimes were the talents," and "they blanketed the ceiling, creating a moving mass that seemed to shimmer" both stood out to me.
    • Maybe we could get more on Bryce? Details/descriptions or possible reckless actions as they make their way to the lair?
    • Love the scene where Madge is looking for her father's talent and at the same time thinking that "with these she could be anything. She could be anyone."

    I think that's it. Overall, very cool and unique concept and I was really impressed with your writing. I would definitely read more!

    Good luck,

    Michael

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Gina,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us today!

    What a captivating selection. I was immediately drawn into your setting and world, and once I was there, I hardly noticed the time passing. This work has great potential, and I can't wait to read your query and learn more about the story.

    Overall, you imbued this story with longing and hope, as well as a sense of desperation, which are essential qualities in a compelling story. Already, I'm dying to see Bryce and Madge succeed...while at the same time dreading what I fear will happen. Bryce's downfall, leaving Madge alone to survive the quest. I may be getting ahead of myself, but your pages have me asking questions, and that's very exciting.

    I think you could improve the flow of the narrative in places. As I read the opening, I wasn't sure whose perspective I was in. The opening sentences were fine, and the heart squeezes were endearing, but then this paragraph jumps out of that close third person perspective, which was a bit startling and confusing:

    "When the girls decided to steal Daddy’s pirogue and head into the swamp and steal his talent back from The Narluu, they needed a way to communicate in the dark. Two weeks wasn’t enough time to learn actual sign language, so they started with a family gesture and added a collection of taps, squeezes, pinches, and scratches. And it was working. So far."

    Perhaps this transition can be re-worked to more smoothly shift from close third to higher level information. I can tell you are trying to get this setup into the first page: "When the girls decided to steal Daddy’s pirogue and head into the swamp and steal his talent back from The Narluu," but I think it needs to be reworked. It's clunky and hard to read aloud. Perhaps reordering the information would help. Break it up, put it more into Madge's close third person voice and spread the info out over the following paragraphs...let us take baby steps into the story. That lead in reads like a pitch line, and is too much all at once.

    Something like:
    "The Narluu's cave was dark, and they couldn't risk speaking out loud. Not if they wanted to live..."

    That's a horrible quick attempt by me, but you will know what I mean. Establish where they are. Establish the quest. Establish the risk. Just not all at once. You can tell us where they are and then tell us why.

    "Normally, Madge liked being shadows. "
    Does this mean being IN shadows? Or have they turned into actual shadows? I stumbled on this but it may just be a typo.

    There are other places where the voice becomes too much author and not enough Madge, but your prose is beautiful and visceral. I see a lot to love here.

    I recommend reading aloud. That will really show where the voice changes.

    Best of luck in your revision!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Melanie,

    Thank you so much for your feedback. I'm going to really focus on getting the right flow of information in there next time!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dear Gina
    I enjoyed reading this and especially loved the very real sense of the world that you created. I could feel the darkness and the warm, swampy night air. As someone who lived for a long time in South Louisiana, it all felt very convincing to me!
    I think you may be trying to do a bit too much in this opening scene. You are introducing quite a number of characters and their situations - the two girls, their father who has lost his magic, other extended family members, and of course the 'monster'. You are also developing the rules of the magical world and the texture of the environment. All of these things need to reveal themselves slowly and naturally, and I think an inciting incident/opening scene with lower stakes would allow you to introduce the girls, their relationship and their world in a way that would make us identify more strongly with your main character. You could then move into this very dramatic scene?
    In paragraph 6 (beginning "When the girls. . . .)could there be a bit too much information? Likewise, in the paragraph beginning "Madge shifted, trying to stretch . . ." some evocative detail (that LOVELY image of the grey cypress bending over them like an aged grandparent) as well as some important information about secondary characters is buried in a bit of clutter. The following paragraph introduces what I assume is a very important situation involving Dad's loss of his talents.
    Basically, I think you can slow down and choose one or two major pieces of information around which to organise each scene. In my experience, the most important thing for agents, editors and eventually readers is whether they identify with your central character. Both the writing and the information delivery should be very smooth so that they don't "bump" us (my wonderful editor's expression!) out of that.
    This is related to my final question. This seem a little bit sophisticated and complicated for middle-grade. Might you want to age up?
    Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to seeing these characters and this story on the shelf. I think you can get there with your tremendously evocative world and clear flair for the dramatic story.
    Very best of luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, this is Meredith by the way. I should be signing these!

      Delete
    2. Hi Meredith,

      Thank you so much for all your thoughtful comments!

      Gina

      Delete
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