Sunday, February 2, 2020

1st 5 Pages Feb Workshop - Wagerman

Name: S.A. Wagerman
Genre: MG Fantasy
Title: The Potioneer

Drawing from Zephyra’s field notebook:
Ruta Gigas or Great Rue Flower (Parts labeled)
USES: Bane potion.  Just add a piece of whatever you want to keep away!
NOTES: smells like old shoes.  Do not get on skin!  Raises blisters.

Normally, I liked the rain.  But today I reckoned it might be the death of me.

It wasn’t that I was bothered by the wet or the cold.  My military uniform, complete with tight gloves and tall black boots, was water-resistant.  So I was as safe and dry under the sage-green Potioneer’s hood as I would’ve been back in Pa and Ma’s snug little farmstead in Vala. 

Really, it was the giant Armored King Crickets that would probably do the actual killing.

“The pump sprayer!” Amestra called over the storm and the creepy clacking sound the bugs made. 

 “See if there’s anything left in it!”  Hood askew, steel-grey hair unraveling from its perfect bun, my mentor didn’t dare take her eyes off the two horse-sized, spiked insects she was fending off with her saber.  Which itself was a sign that the battle wasn’t going our way.  Potioneers fight with potions.

“Yes, ma’am!” I shouted, already starting back towards the trees where we’d left it.

Armored King Crickets normally minded their own business, but recently they’d gotten bold enough to sneak into town and steal animals.  And then they stole the farrier’s youngest daughter, which was awful.  We’d been sent to Esk on other business, but part of a military Potioneer’s job was to help protect the people of Iostria.  We couldn’t just sit there and let giant crickets snack on the townspeople.  

The problem with the rain was that it had washed away all the Bugsbane we’d spent the morning laying down to herd the bugs away.  Which wasn’t fair.  There had been no warning of a storm!  But as soon as the skies had darkened, guess who showed up looking for something tasty to chomp on? 

The pump sprayer bumped awkwardly on its front wheel through the high, rain-slick grass.  I noticed right away how light it was - we’d used most of the potion up.  I skidded to a halt a dozen feet back from the clearing where Amestra was still battling the giant insects, patting down her uniform with her free hand.  She was probably trying to take stock of what she’d slipped into her pockets the prior evening, but there isn’t a lot in the Potioneer’s inventory that works well during a rainstorm.

I pointed the nozzle and pumped the handle for all I was worth, releasing a spray of Bugsbane up at the two insects.  I wasn’t sure how much good it would do with the rain cutting through it, but I kept right at it until I heard Amestra shouting at me.

“Not them!” the Grandmaster snapped, stepping aside and slashing down with her saber, clipping off one of the creature’s long antennae.  It skittered back, shaking its head.  “Me! 

“But…”  Bugsbane was meant for bugs, not people.  I’ve gotten some on myself by accident and I can tell you it itches like crazy!

“I’ll take the rash, thank you!” Amestra said, grey eyes flashing.

I pumped the lever again, aiming the nozzle right at her.  Even if it worked and kept the bugs off her, I wasn’t excited about spraying myself next!  But nothing came out except for a gurgling rush of air and a weak stream that was immediately carried away in the downpour.

Stinkweed and nettles!  Now we were in trouble. My mentor was very organized but she wasn’t one for improvisation.  I’d have to come up with something. 

“Canter?” I asked, searching for the violet potion that gave its user the ability to run like the wind.

“No good!” Grandmaster Amestra said, backpedaling away from the snapping mandibles of the nearer cricket.  “They’re enraged.  They’ll just follow us back to town!”

“We could lead them back into the desert…”  But even as I said it, I knew how stupid it was.

“Zephyra, that’s where they come from.  The last thing we need is more King Crickets!  …Ready the Fireflow potion,” she said unhappily.  “I see no choice.”  She backed away, waving her sword warily, drawing the crickets towards the muddy center of the clearing where hopefully nothing would burn but them.  

I followed, keeping my distance.  Our uniforms were lined with pockets, and my hooded cape held even more.  Being organized was important for Potioneers and I was always getting scolded for throwing my potions willy-nilly into the pouches.  But I had no trouble remembering where I’d stuck the Fireflow potion this morning: in the top slot of the bandolier across my chest.  My hand hovered over it uneasily as I paralleled the Grandmaster and the chittering bugs through the downpour.

One of the crickets tried to climb atop Amestra with its spiky legs, pushing her down to grasp her head in its mandibles.  But that proved a fatal mistake: they were armored on the top and sides, but not underneath.  Amestra drove her saberpoint in beneath the jaws of the monstrous insect and yanked it free again.  Green-black bug-blood joined the rain beading up on Amestra’s uniform, and the Cricket fell atop her, legs still kicking.  I cried out.

“I’m fine,” Amestra said, struggling out from under the twitching insect.  But even as she said it, the second Cricket made a terrible hissing sound and snapped its jaws closed over Amestra’s forearm.  Hard.  She went pale and gave a sharp gasp.  Thank the Flowering Fields she’d insisted we slather ourselves with Strongskin before putting on our uniforms.  Otherwise that would’ve been her arm clean off!  Still, the potion did nothing to stop the muscle and bone underneath from being crushed.

“Zephyra!  Fireflow!” was all Amestra could manage through gritted teeth.

No, no, no, I thought.  Fireflow was too dangerous a potion to miss with.  Amestra was no stranger to my atrocious aim.  

“Closer!” she gasped as I undid my sling from where it was looped at my belt.  “Get closer!”

I took a deep breath.  If I hit Grandmaster Amestra instead of the King Cricket -- or I hit her and the cricket! -- she’d be worse than dead, she’d be nothing but a pile of bones and ashes.  I shook my head to banish the terrible image. And if I missed entirely, I’d just set the forest on fire.  That was no help.

Amestra might not have been fond of improvisation, but it was why -- two years ago at only 10 -- I had been the youngest person ever accepted into the Military Academy of Phytotheurgy.  Mind racing, I emptied a bunch of pockets into a heap on the ground, trying quickly to locate something that would be helpful but not dangerous to myself or Amestra.

The Armored King Cricket shook its head like a dog worrying a bone, and the Grandmaster moaned, her saber dropping from her hand into a muddy puddle with a clink.  “Zephyra!  Hurry!”

What wouldn’t get washed away by the rain?  Maybe a potion I take instead of one I throw?  Vigor would give me a burst of strength… maybe I could pry the mandibles off of her arm?  But then what?  Stupid bugs!  I wish I could just step on you!  But if there was a potion that made you bigger than a King Cricket, I’d never heard of it.  

Calcify might work, I realized, eyes landing on the sky blue liquid.


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  2. S.A.,

    Thank you for adding your first five pages for us to read and critique. I know that feeling of wondering what others will say ��

    First off, I love your first line (I’m a big analyzer of first lines). You made me smile and want to know this MC better. Great characterization within a few words and you kept showing us Zephyra’s inner thoughts and personal feelings. Then you move us into your action scene of a normal life (as much normal as can be in Sci-Fi. LOL) into a battle with giant bugs. How cool.

    You continue with your fun little humorous lines, which I love. “They stole the farrier’s youngest daughter.” Very nice.

    I think you handled this fight scene very well. I did wonder why Zephyra’s just didn’t go ahead after a few seconds of hesitation and spray the Fireflow, even though he was hesitant to miss. But hey, you know, a gigantic bug is biting his Grandmaster! So perhaps you can snip a few lines of showing him looking for something else because it only takes away from the excitement you built up to that point.

    One nit-picky line edit task: Lose some of the exclamation marks, they don’t add, only distract. You do a good job of showing the urgency without them.

    Congrats on doing the first five pages submission. I look forward to seeing your revisions.

    1. Thanks, Becky! I appreciate your critique! ...As you can see, overusing exclamation marks is a problem for me. =)

      You actually made an interesting assumption that reveals something I clearly did wrong in my writing! I hadn't even thought of it in the slightest. I'm not going to say just yet because I wonder how many others will have this same reaction. But it really just goes to show how valuable this feedback is!!! (<-- extra exclamation marks just for you)

    2. The other comments are in now. So, I realized that I never specified Zephy's gender, and you assumed "she" was a "he." But the others assumed she was a girl (she is). I don't know how or why she comes off as one or the other, since I never mentioned... any thoughts on how I might've cleared this up for you?

    3. Honestly, I just thought she was a he, no idea why. Just what was in my head at the time. So this is my mistake, not yours. :)

      And thanks for the exclamations points, I'll take them.

  3. Hi S.A.,

    I like the fact that you drop us into the story right in the middle of ongoing action. I think that’s a great way to get a reader’s attention early on. I also like that you’ve given the main protagonist/narrator a distinct voice and recognizable personality. In terms of feedback for improvement, I’ll focus on two areas, description and pace.

    Generally, I think there is a bit too much descriptive overload. While it helps in visualizing the scene and the characters, it also becomes distracting at points within the story, which negatively impacts the pace in my opinion. For example, the line “Hood askew, steel-grey hair unraveling from its perfect bun, my mentor didn’t dare take her eyes off the two horse-sized, spiked insects she was fending off with her saber,” is a long-winded sentence for me. One where I had to reread multiple times before I understood what was happening and how it fit within the context of the rest of the paragraph. Because you started the story in the middle of an action scene, I was expecting the pace to remain quick and upbeat, but the long-winded descriptions served more as speedbumps.

    Beyond the descriptions, I think the pace is further impacted by disconnected writing or semi-forced backstories. To illustrate the former, take the first sentence, “Normally, I liked the rain. But today I reckoned it might be the death of me.” It’s a great line, but I was expecting to learn right away why the rain posed so much of a threat. As a reader, I wasn’t introduced to the threat behind the rain until after almost 6 paragraphs. By that point, I had already assumed the first sentence was irrelevant, and I couldn’t find any reason for why the explanation behind the rain had not been mention earlier within the intro. The second example is with the nod to the main character being the youngest member accepted into the academy. To me, it seemed like a force way to drop that piece of knowledge, especially since it was during a dire situation for the characters. I find it hard to believe that someone would be thinking about their accolades from 10 years ago while their comrade’s arm is trapped in a big insect’s chompers!

    1. Thank you, Jide! I know that I tend to overdescribe. I can see how that would take the reader out of the action! You make really good points about the order in which backstory is revealed (and whether it needs to be revealed yet or not). I appreciate your analysis!

  4. Hi SA,

    Thanks for sharing your work! I am the guest mentor and I enjoyed reading your pages. Right from the start, I’m in love with the title. The idea of a potion master solider of sorts sounds fantastic. I love the opening, and you do a great job of setting the scene quickly and orienting me to this fantasy world with the huge insects.

    “Potioneers fight with potions.” What a great line!

    I’m a little confused about the farrier’s daughter. Is she eaten? Or just stolen, and perhaps waiting on them to rescue her? I assumed the latter, but then the line about not letting crickets snack on the townspeople made me wonder if she had been eaten, in which case I’d mention that and possibly clarify if these bugs suddenly eating animals and people are a big problem. I guess I want to know if the Potioneers are specifically going to be fighting these large bugs as the plot of the book, or if this is just a side adventure and “part of the job” since it says they were sent to Esk on other business.

    One small thing- I would limit the use of exclamation marks in your dialogue because the sense of urgency is already shown in the action.

    I like that Zephyra is clever and skilled enough to decide on her own to look through her potions to find something that would work better than the fire which could end up killing them all, however, it seems a bit out of character for someone in the military to disobey direct orders from their Grandmaster/mentor… I wonder if Zephrya’s improvisation would be better suited to a situation where she has no choice, like the Grandmaster got into a position where she can’t talk and can’t tell her what to do, and so Zephrya has to figure out a way to save her on her own. Perhaps instead of Amestra telling her to get the Fireflow, she could suggest that it might be their only option, a last resort of sorts, instead of making it a direct order?

    Looking forward to seeing your revision, and this is a great job so far! Can't wait to read more!

    1. Thank you, Cheyenne! You make an excellent point about her military training and the likelihood of her disobeying a direct order... I'm excited to work with you and improve! =)

  5. Hi S.A.,

    Great job on the first 5 pages of your manuscript! I absolutely loved the first sentence, which made me intrigued to read more about why the main character reckoned the rain to "be the death of me." I liked that the following paragraph immediately gave more information about this young soldier: she was a potioneer, part of the military, and perhaps far from her home.

    I loved the idea of the potioneer who fought using potions. I thought the names that you had come up with for the potions were ingenious, such as Bugsbane or Strongskin- they sounded exotic and yet the names appeared to inform the readers about the function of the potion as well.

    I noticed that most of the prose was written in past tense, however I noticed one sentence in present tense which seemed out of place: "I’ve gotten some on myself by accident and I can tell you it itches like crazy!"

    I liked that you dropped us right in the middle of the action with no opportunity to get bored. Although the action scene with the main character, the Grandmaster, and the King Cricket was vividly described, I couldn't quite visualize what the surrounding situation looked like. Was it only it two of them fighting against one King Cricket? Or was it a whole army fighting against a giant group of King Crickets? Did one group outnumber the other?

    You've certainly left the ending of these 5 pages on a cliffhanger, and made me curious about what this Calcify potion does :) Great job on this first segment of your novel!

    1. Thank you, Sophie! I appreciate your feedback! I think you're right: I had a hard time blocking out the fight in imaginary space. I'll work on that for the next revision!

  6. Hello! Thank you for sharing your work with us. It's always an honor to help a fellow writer hone their pages. Okay, I'll comment as I read:

    I really like your opening lines. Pulls the reader directly into the story and gives them some questions, which should keep them reading. Nice! Okay, giant! Especially for MG. As I keep reading, I can hear a distinct MG voice, but there's also a maturity about it. This can be very effective, on one hand; on the other, it might eventually start sounding YA. Just keep that in mind.

    Overall, there's a lot of creativity in these pages, but that can be made bolder and much clearer with some tightening. Be careful about overwriting a sentence or a thought. This can cloud what you're trying to communicate to the reader. (Ex: 'The problem with the rain . . .', we already get that impression by your opening. Just state what's going on. Another ex: where you talk about Pioneers being organized. I'm sure that's an important aspect of this group's development, but this detail isn't really needed during this action scene.) Read over the descriptions you've used and see if all of it is necessary. Once you step away from the piece and do this, I'm sure you'll find parts that aren't truly needed. With description, pinpoint what is essential and ditch the rest, at least for now. You can always add some details in later on. The most important thing during these first pages is to be clear and concise with the world you're creating and character.

    Love where you left us hanging at the end of this piece! Not just because the action, tension, and danger have increased. But because there is a bit of character growth within your MC in those last few lines. Those told me so much about this character. I really like your MC.

    I'm looking forward to reading your revision! I hope this helped.

    1. Thank you, Sheri! Your feedback is so valuable! I've been worried about that blurred line between MG/YA in my tone... as we progress, if you're able to point out any moments where I stray into YA, please point them out to me! Looking forward to working with you. =)

  7. Thanks for submitting your pages SA.

    I really like this. Reminds me of Harry Potter mixed with Spiderwick. Nice opening line. You have a good voice. It’s easy to read and doesn’t feel overly cumbersome. Perfect for middle grade. I love the idea of potioneers—great word—and can already see how it could be marketed.

    Here are some revision ideas:

    “The pump sprayer!” Amestra called over the storm and the creepy clacking sound the bugs made. “See if there’s anything left in it!”

    Hood askew…

    (No need to make “See if there’s anything left in it!” its own paragraph.

    First mention is a saber and then later a sword. Perhaps use sword first so we really know what kind of weapon it is. Later you can tell us it's a saber.

    Stinkweed and nettles *** love this bit of frustration!

    I had been the youngest person ever accepted into the Military Academy of Phytotheurgy—the science of ????

    Overall, really strong. Looking forward to more.

    1. Thank you, Ronald! I appreciate the encouragement, and it means a lot coming from you. We loved Hoodoo. If you didn't know.

      "Phytotheurgy" is definitely a neologism! It means (more or less) plant magic (theurgy = extraordinary feats, phyto = from plants).

      I appreciate your feedback and look forward to working with you to improve The Potioneer!

  8. Hi S.A.

    Sorry for the delay in my getting to your story! I worked every day this week and was late home Monday and with Tuesday’s snow, I had a long haul getting back home after work. My apologies!

    I totally love the premise of your story – the potion’s apprentice who learns from the mentor – and how in the opening scene Zephyra was thrust into a position of having to support and save her mentor. Great way to start! I enjoyed the line about Amestra using her sabre: ‘Which itself was a sign that the battle wasn’t going our way. Potioneers fight with potions.’ The opening scene is action-packed, which is great for MG Fantasy! I also like Zephyra’s voice – she is feisty and fun! I work with kids and I think that will be my new go to phrase: ‘Stinkweed and Nettles!’ 😊

    Zephyra is a quick thinker, which is probably also why she was accepted at such a young age. I was okay with her trying to come up with another way to save the Grandmaster because she was worried about her aim – maybe just add something that shows she doesn’t want to go against Amestra’s wishes but then detail the reasons she is unsure about using Fireflow before she tries her own ideas. If it doesn’t fit to show her trying her own ideas instead of what she was instructed, you could have the cricket nip at another arm or leg and this time, Amestra passes out. Then it will be up to Zephyra to make a decision on her own. I am so keen to learn more about the potions and this relationship and what comes next. I am definitely hooked!

    1. Thank you Cristy! I appreciate the feedback. I really do need to think about how to handle her disobedience in that moment. Looking forward to reading more of yours, too - it's great to work alongside you. =)

  9. Oops - I did it again - sorry, it is Cristy here! :-)

    1. What? Played with my heart? Got lost in the game? ; )

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