Sunday, February 2, 2020

1st 5 Pages Feb Workshop - Li

Name: Sophie Li
Genre: Young Adult Mystery
Title: Children of the Sun

Today is the day when Meredith Zhao will intercept alien communication. Or at the very least, human police communication. You gotta start somewhere. Lying on the open lawn, she presses the telephone receiver to her ear, static crackling through the cord like bacon in a frying pan. She frowns and lays the receiver back down onto the grass beside the tangle of wires and circuits, then she sighs and sprawls onto her belly. It seems like her homemade radio doesn’t work after all. She makes a mental note to look up the instructions again when she gets home.

She tucks her messy red curls behind her ear, rummaging through her backpack to pull out a saran-wrapped sandwich, carefully labelled “Tuesday lunch,” and a worn-out paperback copy of Othello. She takes a bite out of the sandwich as she opens the book to Act Two. The pages are stained yellow, they smell of old ink, the corners and edges worn. Scrawled in the margins are handwritten notes in pencil. She brings the book close to her eyes as she tries to make out the small print.

“Heightened tension… truth and deception,” she mumbles. Then she opens her workbook and copies the words verbatim into the answer section for the first question.

The crackle of radio static jolts Meredith out of her thoughts. It’s coming from the phone receiver. She drops her pen and Othello and turns her attention to the makeshift radio. She picks up the landline receiver and places it to her ear, this time she catches words in between the hiss of static.

“… code five… foot five… ten…”

Her heart leaps as she gathers the circuit board under her arm and darts onto her feet. Leaving the rest of her things behind, she paces around the park in search for a location with better signal. Her footsteps stop underneath the maple tree. Interwoven between static, the rustle of autumn leaves, the chatter of neighbourhood kids on a sunny day, are the threads of a stern conversation. Gruff voices exchange words with military-like efficiency.

“… confirmed Deviant activity reported… mentalist and fire-user.”

“Go ahead.”

“… One-oh-five Oak street.”

Oak street. That’s just two blocks away. Meredith looks around the park to reorient herself, trying to remember if it is behind the swings where children play, or in the direction of the soccer goal posts. But before she can dwell on the idea further, shadows swirl in her peripheral vision, followed by a deafening clunk. She turns and squints in the bright afternoon sun.

Above the tree line of the residential neighbourhood rises a plume of smoke, and within it floats a circle of debris- a ceiling beam, a microwave, a wooden wardrobe among other household items. Deviant activity, no doubt.

The corners of her mouth flick up into a grin. She dashes towards the scene of the crime. One-oh-five Oak street, here she comes.

Adrenaline surges through her veins as she runs past the old Kensington neighbourhood- heritage houses with small yards and overgrown grass, seniors lounging on the front porch with their cats, chic vegan restaurants and vintage clothing stores.

She approaches the property on the edge of Chinatown. A grey haze obscures her vision. Beyond the screen of smoke is an outline of an old home, flashes of flame embedded within charred black walls. Smoke enters her mouth and her nostrils and she breaks into a cough, her eyes burning. A brick sails towards her and she throws herself onto the ground behind a bush. It scrapes past her mane of red curls, missing her skull by a narrow margin.

Her heart pounding fast in her head, her breaths laboured and short, Meredith peeks over the hedge. Two silhouettes emerge from the burning home. They are short with slight builds, their panicked voices drowned out by the billowing flame. They are just children, much younger than Meredith herself. The hands of one child glow red like a burning ember, and yet he doesn’t shirk back with pain. As he touches the wooden railing of the porch, it catches flame. The other child glides through the air, her feet hovering above the ground. As she moves, the shovel, the garden bench, the potted plant are wrenched from the ground and cast away as if repelled by a magnet.

Meredith clutches her makeshift radio under her arm, the coil of wires pinching tight into her palm. The radio signal has gone dead, a steady stream of static. But in the distance is the sound of sirens, the flash of red lights through the grey smoke, the shapes of police and fire department vehicles coming into view.

Firefighters in reflective clothing charge in with hoses, dousing the house with jets of water. Vapour and mist splatter onto Meredith’s cheeks. Shouts erupt as the first responder personnel fend off smoke and flames and disappear into the building to search for survivors. The police vehicle remains parked at the side of the road. Two officers open the trunk to reveal a large bulky machine. Through the dim haze, Meredith crouches forward to see what they are doing, staying low to avoid the smoke. The officers appear to press a series of buttons and pull a lever.

A shrill, mechanical buzz pierces the air. It grates her ears and makes her head hurt.

The debris in the air halt. They hang in midair, as if someone pressed pause on a paranormal movie. Then they fall.

Meredith lets out a scream as she dodges, a TV screen crashing into the ground to her right. She rolls and squeezes her eyes shut. A kitchen knife slices into the earth where her feet had once been.

Footsteps come. Arms wrap around her stomach and carry her away from the fray. She grunts with the impact and coughs up the smoke clogging up her lungs. When she opens her eyes again, she is on the other side of the fence behind a wall of cedar. She takes a breath of cleaner air.

Rio kneels in front of her, his hands on her shoulders. His brown eyes are sharp and furious, his eyebrows furrow and the corners of his mouth pinch down, making his frown lines more prominent than ever. He is pissed.

“Meredith. What the hell are you doing here?”

She avoids his eyes, instead staring into the body cam that is pinned to his police vest, the reflection of her own frizzy red curls and wide round eyes, exaggerated by the curvature of the lens.

“You came to a crime scene,” Rio continues. “Do you know what you just did? How much danger you were in? You could’ve gotten yourself injured- killed. You saw how bad it can get out there. Can I not trust you to be on your own for one day?”

“It was only the safest place in the world because the police, ambulance, and fire department were there,” she mumbles, then she adds, “eventually.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Eventually?”

“Eventually.”

“Meaning you were there first?”

“Yeah,” she says. You gotta give credit where it’s due.

“How?” He frowns.

Now that she’s got his attention, her lips perk up into a grin. “I built a radio and connected it to a SDR dongle in order to intercept FM signals which include first responder and law enforcement communication.”

19 comments:

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  2. Hi, Sophie! Glad to meet you and Meredith. =)

    Meredith is shown to be bold, clever, and feisty. She also seems meticulous (the sandwich label, her heavily-marked book). I like that she has a definite goal right at the beginning of the book (listen in to the police scanner to find Deviant activity).

    Other aspects of her character could be sharpened. The main thing is that I have no clear idea WHY she wants to chase down Deviant activity, and in fact, when she finds it she's very passive, just watching. So the only assumption I can make is that she's not there to help or interact, just rubberneck - which makes her slightly less likeable. I'm willing to wait to find out what's going on with Deviants in your world, and I hope it's something really off the norm, because we have a lot X-Men/Umbrella Academy/Doom Patrol/Runaways type shows doing the 'normal' thing in the genre already.

    You are fantastic at describing the environment using all of the senses. I really felt like I was there in the burning house with Meredith! You might do a bit more to describe Meredith herself - aside from frizzy red hair, I'm not sure what she looks like (or how old she is?). Although I get that running into a burning building isn't a great time to reflect on your clothing or eye color. ; )

    Finally, and this may vary for your readers, but from my very subjective standpoint, third person present is very distracting/gimmicky and I don't know if it adds value. This exact same scene, written in past tense, would go down easier for me.

    Looking forward to seeing how this story develops!

    S

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    1. Thank you for your feedback S.A.! You are definitely right that Meredith's motivation could be a bit more clear here. I will try to work that in with the revision.

      You aren't the first to mention the funky tense! I realized recently that I'm the only person who writes in third person present, and that it's a bit weird... I will have to decide between third person past and first person present. Maybe I will try both and choose one. (However this means I'll have buckle down one day and change the tense for my entire novel. Yikes!)

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  3. Sophie,

    Great first line hook, cute and humorous, which gives a good voice to Meredith. I was hearing the static and waiting on what she would hear, and was deflated along with her when she didn’t hear anything on the line. I was going to remark on how this paragraph came to a halt too fast, but after reading on, I got what I was looking for—crackle of voices. My only suggestion might to draw out her fiddling with the wires and phone as a way to heighten your reader’s experience before she gives up. I did wonder why today of all days will bring in the alien communication, but I’m not sure if it is necessary to tell this.

    You introduce your inciting incident quickly, which draws your reader forward… I love when Meredith repeats the line “deviant activity no doubt.” Again, your humor underscores Meredith’s character.

    As she ran toward the explosion, you mention the elderly sitting on their porches, which made me wonder why no one else was looking at the smoke or running that way. You may want to address this.

    You do very well with making your reader smell the smells and hear the sounds of the fire. You added a good surprise with the two alien children, but I would like to have known Meredith’s shock and feelings about these two. For one, a child burns fire from his hands and the other child floats, plus Meredith has found what she has been hoping to see…..aliens! I would think she would be having some excited inner dialogue over witnessing this.

    Then you offer more mystic with the officers turning off the machine in the trunk. Great mystery there. On Rio, I wanted to know his connection to Meredith but perhaps you do this in the next few pages. On this sentence I stumbled, “It was only the safest place in the world because the police, ambulance, and fire department were there.” I’m not sure if you need “only.”

    Thank you for sharing your pages. You have great characterization of a brave, smart, fun-loving MC and a nice beginning hook. This is a fun first five pages with plenty of mystery and fast paced action. I enjoyed reading it.

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    1. Hello Becky! Thank you so much for your feedback and I'm glad that you liked Meredith's voice.

      You're right that Meredith seemed to give in too easily in this scene. Thanks for pointing it out- I actually didn't notice until now. I've made a note to revise this for the next draft.

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  4. Hi Sophie,

    I’m the guest mentor this month, and I was really entertained while reading your pages. I love how you threw us into the action right away, and at no point was I bored—I devoured Meredith’s adventure!

    The opening lines are great and give Meredith a fun voice, but I feel like she gives up a bit too quickly on the radio. Are there dials or an antenna or something she can fiddle with to try to make the signal work?

    Also, it starts out with “Today is the day” which makes me think Meredith has been planning for this and is eager for results, yet after just a few seconds, she gives up and starts eating a sandwich and doing homework. It might help to ground us a bit here—is there a specific reason that today is the day? Or does she do this all the time and isn’t really expecting anything?

    I’d also love to know why specifically she is looking for alien activity, and maybe give her something to do besides just eavesdropping. Or if she is just eavesdropping, is there a reason why? Did a family member get abducted, or gain powers and get carted off recently? During the crazy explosion scene, she hides out and watches, and doesn’t actively do anything. I want to know why she’s there and why she’s seeking out this activity with her radio. Even if it’s just one or two mysterious lines that hint that she has a good reason, I’d be intrigued.

    The ending is fantastic. I love that she knows the cop who finds her, and it leaves me eager to find out how they’re related. I definitely want to keep reading!

    While I’m a huge fan of present tense writing, I think it reads better in a first person perspective. Here, with the third person present tense, it was a little jarring and I’m not sure I’d get used to it after a few chapters. I would suggest trying it out in third person past, or first person present and see if it sounds more natural.

    Thanks for sharing! It was a delight to read your work.

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    1. Hello Cheyanne! Thank you for the thoughtful feedback.

      I agree that Meredith seemed to give up too quickly on her radio, especially after she spent so much effort on it before. I have made a note to revise this in my next draft.

      You're right that Meredith's intentions for eavesdropping aren't too clear. There is explanation about this later on in the novel, but it sure doesn't hurt to sneak in a hint or too. I'll have to think about the best way to work this in.

      Up until recently I thought it was normal to write in the third person present tense! However I noticed (after a few beta-readers pointed it out) that most novels don't write in this tense... so you've definitely brought up a good point that I should try a different tense for this novel. I will experiment to see whether I like third person past or first person present for the first 5 pages. Of course fixing the rest of the novel would be a much bigger project!

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  5. I love your sensory details; they bring me into your scene. You start us in the action and give details about the world as we progress through the opening scene. By the way, I believe we live close to one another, based on the city you describe! I think the tense may be a bit awkward, but I know how much work that is to change the entire novel. I am also a fan of trying new things, so I am wondering if there are just a few key phrases that you could watch out for, that would help the work read more smoothly? For example, ‘You gotta start somewhere’ – that felt more first-person, as did: ‘One-oh-five Oak Street, here she comes.’ Perhaps just keeping an eye out for those types of lines would help? I assumed Meredith was in Grade 12, based on Othello. I love the little details you give, like how she copies the text she finds in the margin for the play. My other critique is that in the action scenes, like when she finds the Deviant activity, keep the descriptions of the setting to a minimum unless they enhance the suspense. Shorter sentences pick up the pacing of the story and give the reader a sense of urgency. I love Meredith’s voice and I am wondering if she is interested in Rio and planted herself there, on purpose? Love the world-building and I am keen to read more!

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    1. Hi Cristy!

      Thank you for your feedback. I am glad to hear that you liked Meredith's voice and that you liked the sensory details in the scene.

      You're right that some aspects of the scene feels more first-person. I noticed it as well when I was combing through the first chapter last night. From an effort perspective, it'll much easier to make a verb tense change to past rather than a POV change to first person... I'll have to decide what to do with this haha :)

      That's a good tip to limit description during action scenes!

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  6. Sorry - I guess I should say Poetry Girl is Cristy!

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  7. Sophie,

    The pacing of this story is phenomenal. I really enjoyed how you took your time pulling the reader into Meredith’s world with such vivid and concise imagery. I could easily picture Meredith and her personality and probably could see her as an instant addition to the cast of Stranger Things. Not sure if that’s what you were going for, but I liked it.

    You also do a great job transitioning from a slow, seeping feed of character and scene development into an abrupt action sequence with all types of household flying debris. My one comment on this is that once that transition is made, the action sequence does seem to drag out a bit. I started to get lost in all of the action and had a bit of trouble maintaining the overarching story that was being communicated in these first few chapters. Are there really aliens? Or just super powered individuals? Were they actually aiming to hurt Meredith (maybe the assumption here can be communicated through Meredith’s point of view)? Between the scene of Meredith first seeing the mysterious individuals and her being rescued by Rio, almost seems like a blur on first read. I had to go back and reread carefully to fully situate myself and follow along.

    Also, the introduction of Rio seems a bit off, but I’ll be honest and can’t necessarily pinpoint why. One thing for sure, the paragraph describing his initial expression stood out to me as a lot more verbose compared to the rest of the writing in the first 5 pages. Maybe consider how you can communicate his expression in a slightly more concise way?

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    1. Hello!

      Thank you so much for your feedback. You've mentioned some great points. I can see your point in that the whirlwind of events might have been hard to digest the first go-through- I'll have to think about this and figure out how best to address this in the next draft.

      Great tip about Rio. I'll make a note of touching up on that introduction as well. Thank you!

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  8. Hi Sophie! I really enjoyed reading your pages. I was there with Meredith and intrigued by the story. There's been a lot said about the point-of-view in comments above so I'll just add this: Erin Morgenstern's wonderful THE NIGHT CIRCUS is written in 3rd-person-present; Julie Berry's ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME is written in 2nd person (another unusual choice) and works very well. Sometimes POV I is the trickiest part of a manuscript. Consistency and commitment are essential as you feel your way -- and don't get discouraged if settling on what feels best to you takes a few tries. You're the author who has to write all the words (lol!) so make sure you feel comfortable writing in whatever POV you choose :) Structurally, I really like the way we are immediately swept into Meredith-in-action -- doing something and not just reflecting on her emotions. That said, without interrupting the great pacing and flow of the opening action, it might be worth trying to introduce a few more character specifics (emotional reactions or objectives, physical traits other than hair) to help connect readers to your MC more fully. One last point: To me, this feels a littl more genre than simply mystery -- I get elements of scifi/supernatural with the fire kids as well as a bit of a dystopian vibe. This isn't really important as you write your first draft -- just keep going with your strong story -- but might be worth getting your head around as you move toward revision and submission of your work. This is a terrific start -- thoroughly enjoyable -- and I look forward to reading d2 next week! -- Stasia

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    1. Hi Stasia! I really appreciate your feedback, thank you so much. Until you mentioned, I hadn't realized that The Night Circus was written in 3rd-person present, which was pretty awesome to hear. Third-person present feels very natural to me, however since most people finds it jarring I think I will change it.
      I have tried my best to add in physical traits to my MC, however I am not great at it. It is always the one thing I struggle with, but I hope that this is better in the next draft haha.
      Yes you are right that there is an element of Sci-Fi in this novel. I will indicate this in the next draft. Thank you so much!

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  9. The first two lines do not immediately make me think that she is listening on a homemade radio. And I love when I get to the part about the homemade radio. I think mentioning it up front before these two opening lines will really help ground both the setting and tone for the story.
    You do a really great job of giving her some quirks up front and making her a very relatable character. Well done.
    I love how you weave setting into the story.
    I know this might not be a popular opinion, but I would encourage you to think about why you chose to mesh present tense with third person-limited POV. I think it works really well in first, but in this story so far, the third makes it seem a bit like it’s more of a report than a story. This could just be me. But I wondered if you played around with changing one or the other (past tense or first person) if it might fit the story better.
    The other thing I would really like to see more of is Meredith’s internal emotions and thoughts. I get mostly what she’s seeing and doing, but would love also to know what she’s thinking and feeling.

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    1. Hello S.D.! Thank you so much for your feedback. You are right that I should make it more clear up front about the homemade radio. To be honest the alien communication part really isn't all that relevant to the story (and I think I mislead some people here into thinking that this book is about aliens haha) so I will rethink the first sentence.
      I think you are right regarding the verb tense here (and you're definitely not the first to bring it up!) I will revise this in the next draft. I will also make Meredith's thoughts and motivations more clear as well. Thank you so much!

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