Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The PAYA Chronicles: And Then It Hit Me

So, PAYA's Listen and Critique Workshop. NOT.SCARY.AT.ALL. Actually, it was great. After listening to the authors speak, we were broken out into two groups, each with three authors and three/four writers. I'm going to say it again because it can't be said enough: What an incredible opportunity. I feel like I won the writer lottery, because from everything I've heard, you don't usually get this much attention from one author, much less three, and they were awesome.

In my group, the authors were Amy Brecount White, Shannon Delany, and Jon Skovron. I know this is going to sound silly, but woohoo! That's pretty much how I felt. And along with myself and Aine, I was joined by fellow writers Lillie and Ilene, who are very talented.

Lillie and Ilene went first and let me just say...when I get nervous, I play with my pen. At some point, while playing with my pen, I accidentally launched it into the air and hit Ilene. The pen then fell to the ground, and thoroughly mortified, I quickly reached down to get it. And slammed my head on the edge of the table we were all sitting at. Because I have many talents, but apparently hand-eye coordination is not one of them. Now I was beyond mortified, because I had just embarrassed myself in front of Amy Brecount White, Shannon Delany, and Jon Skovron, who are like rock stars as far as I'm concerned, but what can you do, and at least the pen didn't go flying through the air and poke anyone in the eye. That'd be REALLY embarrassing.

Finally, it was my turn. I handed out copies of my lovingly prepared three pages for critique and Amy Brecount White kindly agreed to read for me. Yes, I'm painfully shy, but with her reading, I could take notes and pay attention to people's reactions, so thank you, Amy!

Here's the three pages that Amy read, from my manuscript Knights of Avalon, about the Knights of the Round Table being reincarnated as New Jersey teens, and Mordred is hunting them down and killing them:

Last night, the most extraordinary person I had ever met vanished. She was my best friend Gwen, about the only friend I really had. The call came at three in the morning, one of those calls that I knew would change everything. It was Gwen’s Mom, Mrs. Martinez, asking if I had heard from her daughter that night. It was never the type of call you wanted to get, not when there was a murderer out there, targeting the brightest and most brilliant teens in New Jersey.

I had known Mrs. Martinez for over ten years. The lady was unshakeable. She never raised her voice, never lost her cool. Not even that time Gwen and I had come home covered from head to toe in mud when we were little. She had just stared at us in horror, burst into laughter, and grabbed the garden hose.

Now she was a wreck. According to her, no one had heard from Gwen since 11pm, when she had called her boyfriend after their date and told him her car had broken down in Stone Harbor, right off its main street. Except when the family drove there to pick her up, no one could find Gwen, or the car.

No, I hadn’t heard from her, I said. Not since earlier that day. Mrs. Martinez, ever polite, apologized for waking me up, promised to call back the moment the family had any news, and like that, I was left to fear for my friend in the darkness.

Something had happened to Gwen. Sure, she was sixteen, and us sixteen-year-olds had a habit of staying out late and doing bone-headed things, but Gwen wasn’t like that. We had our adventures, we got into our share of trouble, but Gwen would never scare her parents. Maybe her cell phone had run out of power, maybe it was the other possibility, the possibility I didn’t even want to think about, but she was thoughtful, she was kind, she wouldn’t forget to check in. If she hadn’t called, it was because she couldn’t.

My best friend was the most beautiful person I had ever met, and I wasn’t talking about her looks. I mean, she was pretty enough, slim, with long black hair, dazzling honey-colored brown eyes, and a sublime grace. That’s not what made her beautiful. She had an inner light, a compassion that shone through.

I, on the other hand, was about as huggable as a porcupine. I was a big girl, and I was OK with that. My family was Polish, my last name was Kwiatkowski, but I must have had a great-great-grandmother in my family tree who was a Viking warrior. There wasn’t much else to explain how I had gotten to be 6 foot and built like a linebacker. Well, there was my father, who was 6’2” and built like a linebacker, but I didn’t want to dwell on the thought that I might take after him.

I wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. I was OK with that too. I kind of didn’t care. I had, in fact, given up on caring a long time ago. But Gwen put up with me, which meant maybe I wasn’t as awful as I thought.

When I was five years old, I had found her playing by herself by the creek one day. Gwen always played alone, none of the other kids in the neighborhood seemed to know what to do with her. Not like they knew what to do with me either. Gwen had been trying to catch frogs in a pool that had formed off a sandbar. She was playing in my creek. In my favorite spot. Catching my frogs. I told her that if she wanted to hang out in my spot, that she’d have to prove herself by crossing the creek on a rickety old moss-covered log. Gwen was up for that. She danced across without a moment’s hesitation. Then she dared me to do the same. I wasn’t afraid. But I wasn’t as graceful as she was, and I wasn’t as light. I slipped off into the water, twisting my ankle. Gwen braved the creek to fish me out. Our friendship was instant.

Now, my best friend was missing. My first impulse was to go out and look for her. It was three in the morning and she was two hours away, but part of me wanted to try anyways. What if she had had an accident? What if she had gotten her car going, only to have it break down again in the middle of nowhere? There was a murderer on the loose, searching for his next victim. I couldn’t bear to think of her out there, scared and alone.

I had woken up my mother to talk to her about it. She said I’d have to wait until morning. I didn’t know how she expected me to just go back to bed. I stared across the room, at the Bruce Lee posters on the walls, thinking about Gwen. My room was up on the second floor of our family’s Cape Cod, painted in a tropical blue with a neon purple chair in the corner. Gwen sometimes joked that I must have been color blind, but I just liked it that way. Who said colors needed to coordinate?

I kept my cell phone by my side, hoping Gwen’s parents would call back soon. Better yet, maybe it’d be Gwen on the other end of the line. I know it was stupid, but I tried her number and was taken directly to her voicemail. It felt strange to hear her voice, so breezy and cheerful. I sent a text message next. I really didn’t know what I was expecting. I might’ve tried her boyfriend, talk to him about what had happened, but I had never met him, I didn’t even know his last name, much less his phone number.

Wow, would you look at all that telling and not showing. Way to take a great concept and suck the life right out of it with a bunch of exposition up front. I can see it now. I couldn't see it before. A lot of times when I revise, I have an Ah-ha! moment (as opposed to a "Muhahahaha!" moment), where there's a shift in understanding. That's what I was hoping for with this workshop and that's what I got. As Amy read my manuscript, I could feel the energy just die on the page whenever we got to the exposition, and there's a lot of exposition. So I think I finally get what I've been doing wrong with my opening.

Here's some of the specific feedback I got:

  • Add dialogue, the action is too far removed
  • There's no paranormal here
  • No sense that Justine is heroic
  • Play up the murder mystery

OK, now here's my revised opening. Hopefully it's better. Because my main character, Justine, is a skeptic, I couldn't really figure out how to bring the paranormal into the opening pages, but I could definitely play up the murder mystery.

“Hi, Justine. I’m sorry to be calling so late.” The voice on the other end of the line sounded scared, exhausted. “Gwen’s not with you, is she?”

I fought to get my bearings in the darkness, the cell phone clutched in my hand. I was in my bedroom, the Bruce Lee posters on the walls told me that much. I peered at the alarm clock, the numbers flashed 3:11 back at me. This wasn’t good. This was one of those calls you never wanted to get, certainly not at 3am on a school night. Not when there was a murderer out there, targeting the brightest and most brilliant teens in New Jersey.

“No,” I said, trying to get my brain to work right. “Why would she be?”

“You haven’t heard from her at all?” There was desperation in Mrs. Martinez’s voice, a desperation I had never heard before.

“No, what happened?” I asked, throwing the blankets back and sitting up straight, my heart starting to race. “I mean, we talked earlier this evening. But that was it.”

I was wide awake now. It was three in the morning and the mother of my best friend was calling to find out where her daughter was. Only I had no idea.

Mrs. Martinez took a deep breath, trying to steady her voice. “According to Gwen’s boyfriend…” That last word dripped with something bordering on contempt. “According to him, Gwen headed home from their date around 11pm. He’s saying her car broke down in Stone Harbor, right on its main street, that she called him to pick her up. But Gwen’s not there, and neither’s her car.”

“What?” None of this was making sense. “Did he pick her up or not?” I turned on the light, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. I’d get her myself if I had to. I didn’t care that I was over two hours away.

“He said when he got there, Gwen was gone,” Mrs. Martinez repeated, struggling not to lose her composure. “We went there ourselves, we can’t find her either. It’s like she vanished.”

That’s not what I wanted to hear, because Gwen Martinez wasn’t just my best friend, she was the most extraordinary person I had ever met. A straight ‘A’ student who planned on becoming a heart surgeon and working for Doctors Without Borders one day, she had an inner light, a compassion that shone through. There had always been something different about her, something special. Just like the other victims.

They had vanished too. But it was more than that, they hadn’t just disappeared, it was like the Earth had opened up and swallowed them whole. Then they turned up dead, slashed to death with what investigators guessed was a very long knife. No witnesses, no hint of anything suspicious before they went missing. How could a killer do that? And the lack of evidence meant no suspect.

Twelve kids found dead: A fencing champion destined for the Olympics, a martial arts prodigy, an organizer for Habitat for Humanity. One poor boy had won the Hero of the Year award for rescuing a child from drowning only a month before he was killed. They were like Gwen, they were amazing.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Mrs. Martinez continued, realizing that perhaps she had said too much. “Gwen probably got her car towed to a gas station, and maybe her cell phone ran out of power. I’ll call you back the moment we hear from her.”

“And if she does call me, I’ll let you know right away,” I promised as I walked to my dresser and grabbed some clothes. It might’ve been three in the morning, but I was already coming up with a plan to help search for Gwen. Because something had happened to her. Sure, Gwen and I had had our adventures, we had gotten into our share of trouble, but Gwen would never scare her parents. Maybe her cell phone had run out of power, maybe it was the other possibility, the possibility I didn’t even want to think about, but she was thoughtful, she was kind, she wouldn’t forget to check in. If she hadn’t called, it was because she couldn’t.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Martinez said, ever polite, even in a situation like this. Somehow, I didn’t know why, but what I said had given her some comfort. “I’m so sorry for waking you up. Try to get some rest and we’ll be in touch.” Then she hung up, leaving me to fear for my friend, alone somewhere out there in the darkness.

Like I said, hopefully this is better!

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