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Sol: A YA Novel looking for a critique

Hi Everyone, 

I have recently finished my first book (yayyyy!).  It's a YA novel, and this is my first foray into peer to peer critiques.  Here is my elevator pitch and first 2400-ish words.  I am looking forward to any feedback you can provide.  Thank you!

Pamela 

Solstice Etain, or Sol, is a teenage girl that has a special connection with nature.  She lives alone with her mother and doesn’t know anything about her father.  One day, Sol finds a rock in her garden with a mysterious symbol carved on it.  Through investigation, alarming realizations and hidden journal entries, Sol discovers that the carved stone is the key to figuring out who her father is and what she really is.    

Sol, is really half Fae.  The carved symbol unlocks the secret to travelling to the land of the Fae, Terra, where Sol embarks on a journey to find her father.  She finds herself embroiled with the Resistance who are working against the Fae King and Queen and their plans to keep Terra shut off the from the human world and magic of the symbols locked up forever.  

 

Sol

Chapter 1

Ever since I was young, strange things have happened.  I have always been good with plants, but sometimes it seems a little...unnatural.  I had a rosebush once that bloomed all winter; we had roses growing out of snowbanks.  Mom was worried what the neighbors thought and battled it all winter long.  However, the more she chopped, the more the roses grew, they were kind of stubborn like myself.  My vegetables almost always win first prize at the local fair, people have become suspicious of them so I don’t enter any more, but that’s ok, it’s no fun winning all the time.  More unsettling though, is how plants will react to my mood. I’ve killed an entire garden once when I was mad – not by ripping up the plants, they just shriveled up and died.  It was like they got poisoned by the anger I was holding inside.  I have tried not to get too mad after that happened, I think I was grounded for a week after that episode, my mom thought I did it on purpose no matter how much I protested.  

On the other hand, when I am happy things flourish.  I think I was in love once. Forget-me-nots sprung up and took over our entire lawn; moonflowers bloomed all night, their soft, lemony scent floating through the windows in the evening.  Mom was not too happy having to reseed the lawn after all the forget-me-nots died the year my 8th grade crush on Tommy Wright was literally crushed after he went out with another girl.  I still think of him whenever I see a forget-me-not.  I have tried not to fall in love since that happened much to the frustration of boys in my classes. My mother has a green thumb, but I have never seen her affect plants the way I do.  She probably knows everything there is to know about plants, when to plant them, when to harvest them, how to make remedies from them, but she cannot make a plant grow that she did not plant and can’t make one die by having a bad thought.    Controlling my emotions has become a big part of my life.  People in town whisper about my mother and me, it’s a small town and the people in it have their oldwives’ tales and superstitions.  I hear them sometimes while waiting in line at the bank, or taking a stroll to the library. I’ve heard rumblings of “hedge witch,” or “unusual,” or “healer;” nothing vicious, but I think people have noticed that we are a little different, and I guess we are.  It doesn’t bother me very much, but I think it bothers my mother.  And, I think there is more she is not telling me.  I often get the feeling she leaves bits and pieces out of stories she tells me from her past.  Occasionally, people, mostly women, from town make the journey up to our house to seek out botanical remedies from my mother.   I help her make them, but my mother usually does all the talking.   It’s nice having visitors, but at the same time, I don’t mind when they leave.  They don’t need to catch me in a mood and see some weird plant sprout up - have more to whisper about when they go home. 

Mom and I have a few animals; chickens so we always have fresh eggs, a cow for milk, and the occasional stray cat.   Those are the animals people know about anyway.  They don’t know about the deer that visit me at the edge of forest, let me pet their fawns in spring in return for apples, or the birds that sing along with me as I work.   When we first moved, there was a coyote that hung around the chicken coop. I met him face to face one evening when shooing the hens back in.  We had a long hard stare at each other and I tried to say with my eyes, “leave my hens alone, they are ours, not yours.”  The coyote and I have an understanding, a trust, and I don’t see him anymore except on rare occasions.  Our hens have all been fine.  It’s not so much that I can talk to animals, because even though I do, they don’t understand me.  Sometimes I think they can read my feelings though.  When I was little and lost a marble I was playing with, I could always count on the mice to help me find it.  Or, when I was a little older and wanted to climb a tree, the chipmunks and squirrels would make sure I never grabbed a broken branch.  So, you see, we have an understanding, almost a friendship, but I cannot talk with animals. 

The most unsettling things that have ever happened to me I’ve learned not to speak of, especially to my mother.  It unnerves her to no end, to the point where she is constantly looking over her shoulder and locking all the doors and windows.   There is no easy way to put it…I see things.   Not ghosts, nothing frightening…to me at least.  When I was a child, maybe four or five, I saw lights in the garden during warm summer nights. Mother told me not to go near them or they would lead me away to a land far away and I would never see her again -old wives’ tales and myths.   I didn’t believe her, how could something so beautiful be so dangerous?  I would sneak out at night and play hide and seek with the lights.  I did get scared once or twice when I realized I was in the middle of the woods after one of these games and not in my garden.  It was never so far that I couldn’t find my way back to the house, but I never remembered how we got there, the lights and I.  I still see them from time to time, after a storm, or when I’m particularly lonely.   Throughout my pre-teen years though, was when I really worried my mother.   I told her I never felt alone when I was in the woods, that there was always someone with me, watching over me.   Part of it was due to the animals that were always nearby, but sometimes, I would catch glimpses of them behind trees, or through the bushes.  Never anything solid, just a shape out of the corner of my eye, a sparkle of light on what looked like flowing hair, soft fabric sliding over the forest floor.  I never got a good look at them, just glimpses from the corner of my eye or the impression of something or someone there.  They never gave me any feeling of ill intent, just an ever-present feeling.   When I told my mother, she went pale; paler than I have ever seen her.   She forbade me to go into the woods alone, forbade me to ever talk to these ‘people of the woods.’ Once again, I thought she was being irrational.  Besides, I had never actually seen one, just thought that I had.  In all likelihood, I had read too many fairy tales and fantasy novels and my mind was just playing tricks on me.  I think they heard her warning though; I rarely see them anymore.  When I think back on these times, I still have the feeling that my mother is keeping something from me, but I still don’t know quite what.    

Chapter 2

All of these memories came flooding back to me, as I stood in our garden, looking at a rock which had a peculiar symbol carved into it.  It delicately swirled in a beautiful, intricate pattern It was very lightly scratched into this stone that edged my garden, but the way the light was hitting it made it stand out against the rest of the stonewall.  I was pretty sure I would have noticed this rock before as I spend a good amount of my time in the garden…but you never know.  It was a very fine carving, perhaps  it had been here for years, and I just happened to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time?  Either way, I was sure that I wasn’t going to tell my mother about it, not yet.  It would probably just worry her.  I would try not to think about it as I had been unsuccessfully trying not to think about all the strange things that I have witnessed since we moved into this house.    We moved here when I was three and I never quite got the full story of why or how from my mother.  At the time, we had been living in a tiny apartment in the city.  I only have hazy memories of it, light filtering through smudged windows, horns honking, and lots of stairs.  According my mother we inherited this house with its forests and gardens from a distant relative and we should just be thankful that we have it instead of being cooped up in that dismal apartment in the city.  She usually drones on like this until I give up and leave it alone.   

The house is wonderful.  It’s large and made from white stone with a gray slate roof.   It has a huge veranda with stone floors that warm in the winter sunlight, and stay cool in the summer heat.   The gardens wrap around the entire house.  The gardens during the golden hour, just before the sun sets are my favorite place to be in the entire world.  Which is where I am standing right now, looking at that rock.  You can feel the plants soaking up the last bits of energy from the sun, the sun warming your skin, and, if you pay attention, you might see the fairy lights start to dance through the woods.  The driveway leads through an expansive lawn in the front of the house down a winding path through the woods, making it feel like it is far away from society, even though town is a 10-minute drive by car.  In front there is also the small barn for our cow and the coop for the chickens.   The woods in the back of the house, behind the gardens, are filled with paths that intertwine and lead you deep in to the forest.    These are the woods where I see the “woodland folk” as my mother calls them.  Of course, I have explored many of the trails, but I’m always slightly nervous I’ll get lost.  Mother gets angry when I wander through them by myself instead of with a friend or herself, but in the summer, the breeze though the pines is so refreshing and tempting. 

The front door of the house leads into the living room, the biggest room in the house.  It has high ceilings with beautiful large windows that let in the morning light.  Opposite the windows is a stone fireplace with two comfortable wingchairs perfect for curling up in with a warm mug of tea on cold winter nights.  To the right of the fireplace there is a staircase with a carved wooden railing leading to the three bedrooms upstairs.  The carvings are of intricate floral designs and must have taken years and a master craftsman to finish.  I wish we could figure out how old the house really is but we haven’t been able to find any information about it – not even the deed.   Under the staircase is an entryway into the dining room and kitchen area.  To the left of the fireplace is a door leading into the library.  The library is a long narrow room lined with dark wood shelving, windows and two built-in desks.  I have always admired the books in this room, some with rich leather bindings, some with fabric covers, but I never really took the time to read most of them.  They seemed old, and while beautiful, might be a little boring.  They definitely were not the fantasy novels about fairies and dragons and knights in shining armor that I enjoyed reading in there.  It must have taken many lifetimes to fill this library with such an impressive collection though.  At the opposite end of the library is another entrance into the kitchen which is warm and welcoming.   We typically have some remedy brewing, or herbs drying, or my mother is baking something that smells wonderful; it is very much a working kitchen.    The kitchen has a door with a leaded glass window that leads out into the back garden which brings me back to where I am now, staring at this strange symbol carved into a rock.  I think, for now, I will treat it as any other odd occurrence that happens around this house - acknowledge its presence, but try to pretend it’s not there.   

Chapter 3

I tried to forget that symbol for as long as I could.  It’s been two weeks, and I think I’ve been out to check to see if the rock is still there every other day.  I had dreams about the symbol, I almost mentioned it to my mother several times.   Some of the plants in that garden plot are beginning to look funny, not wilting, but twirling up in to weird coils, almost as though they can sense my tension and apprehension when I am near.  I have to knock this off.  It’s Saturday morning, nearing the middle of August, the sun hasn’t yet made it past the horizon, over the trees but it is still light out.  I am standing in the garden, staring down at the symbol.  It feels like it’s calling to me, drawing me in.    I vaguely think that it might be some sort of letter in a different language, not a symbol, that would be much more in line with a fantasy novel.  As a first step, logically, I decide to check all the rocks in the garden, no small feat considering the size.  This is how my mother found me when she wandered out into the garden with a steaming cup of coffee in her hand; hunched over the garden edge with a rock in my hands. 

“Solstice, what are you doing my dear?”  She asked.  

I didn’t want to tell her about the symbol, I knew how she would react, treat it as something to be wary of.  “Nothing, just checking out the rocks in the garden,” I replied lamely.  

“It looks like you are searching for something.”

“I’m…I am…I just don’t know what I am searching for yet”

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Replies (9)
  • Hi Pamela, 

    Congratulations on finishing your first novel! You've already got a lot further than a lot of people do. Having read through the extract this very much feels like a first draft. You've told the story for yourself and as a writer we need to know and figure out a lot more than what the reader needs. Now you need to edit with the reader in mind.

    For example looking at the first chapter, it's all telling and exposition which is not an engaging way for the reader and it keeps them at arm's length instead of getting them immersed. Instead of telling us that she has unusual talent with plants, create a scene where she cares for a plant, or a flower and something happens.

    I would suggest using Emma Darwin's writer tool-kit. It covers all the basics of story telling from POVs, effective scenes, psychic distance, show don't tell, etc... 

    https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/resources.html

    One thing with writing YA is that your story needs to have a strong voice and grab the reader attention straight from the start. I'm not sure how much YA you already read but I would suggest to read critically. For example you can use the 'Look Inside' function on Amazon, look at the opening pages of YA novels and analyse where the writer starts the story, how much into a scene do they start (the advice is enter a scene as late as possible and leave as early as you can), how do they use dialogue to draw the reader in, etc...

    Most of the time as writers we over-estimate the amount of information a reader need. Readers like to be intrigued, they want to read to find out things, work things out for themselves. Personally for me, the story starts at chapter 2, but should be shown instead of told, i.e. start with Solstice in a scene, not telling us about, but doing — Digging in the garden, pottering about until she stumbles onto the stone. It's intrigue that moves the story and the reader forwards so remember to raise questions that the reader will want to keep reading to find out.

    For example, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The first line, "I shouldn't have come to this party." Simple but straight away as a reader I want to keep reading because I want to find out, what kind of party this is, why didn't they want to come, what kind of teenager doesn't want to go to a party, etc..." and then we delve straight into the party, the writer showing us what's happening.

    I hope this helps and good luck with the editing.

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    • Thank you, that is very helpful feedback!  I have read a lot of YA books, but more for pleasure and not really thinking about them critically.  I am at the point where I've read through the story I'm trying to tell so many times / know it so well it's hard for me to look at it objectively.  Your advice gives me a specific thing to focus on which is exactly what I needed. 

      I really appreciate it!

      Pamela  

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    • Hi Pamela

      As L said, congratulations on finishing your first novel. It's a great achievement in itself. I'm also going to agree with her excellent feedback.

      I read a lot of and (attempt) to write YA. You're dealing with short attention spans so need to grab the reader right way.

      What you've done in these two chapters is very common in first drafts. You've created what is sometimes called scaffolding. It's all the information you need to know as the writer because you need to be intimate with every detail of your character's life. But the reader doesn't need to know as much, and certainly not in a big information drop at the beginning of the book. Relevant information can be woven in around the action.

      L recommended Emma Darwin's excellent blogs, and here's one about scaffolding: https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2010/12/the-common-scaffold.html

      You may find that your actual story doesn't start until chapter 3 and these early parts need chopping. I would suggest you start with your character in action. Give us a scene in which your character is doing something, and through her actions you can show us how different she is.

      I hope that's helpful. Where to start a novel is always a tricky decision. I look forward to reading some more in the future.

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      •  Hi Pamela,

        I won't repeat what Kate and L have already told you, but I agree with them.

        What they haven't said is that you've got some really great images and anecdotes in what you've written which have the power to show elements of these mysterious Fae powers that Sol has. I love the bit about the rose bush blooming all winter, the forget-me-nots that sprung up when she was going through a teenage crush, and the way these things exasperate mum. It made me think of the bit early on in the first Harry Potter book where Harry unwittingly uses his magic to talk with the snake and the zoo and then makes the glass window vanish.

        Could you turn some of this into a bit of present action rather than all reminiscing over what has happened in the past? For example, could you begin with Sol sat inside doing something typically teenage (e.g. scrolling through social media) and mum coming into the house with a pair of secateurs declaring that she can't understand why that rose bush can't tell that it shouldn't be blooming in the depths of winter. And then you could have a brief bit of Sol reflecting on the effect she seems to have on plants and remembering the time mum had to reseed the lawn. Mum could also perhaps make a comment about how a coyote or something has killed all of next door's chickens and how lucky we've been that it's left ours alone for some reason. Sol could then say to the reader something like... What mum doesn't know is that I told the coyote to leave our chickens alone. The animals listen to me you see.

        I think that in just a few short paragraphs you could communicate the essence of Sol's differences, her special but as yet unharnessed powers, through an event that's happening in the present. But don't give us too many anecdotes and also don't give too much away - you just need to hint at these things and leave your reader wondering whether Sol is really special or whether she's just got a vivid imagination.

        If that's chapter 1, I'd perhaps start chapter 2 with Sol tracing her finger over the symbol carved into the rock in the wall. Then perhaps mum could call to her or walk past her and ask what she's daydreaming about now / tell her she needs to get on with something she should be doing. Then when Sol looks back towards the symbol, it's vanished and she's left wondering whether it ever was there, whether it was a trick of the light or something. I'd definitely cut the All of these memories came flooding back to me, as I stood in our garden... Just go straight to what's happening now, and bring in another person (e.g. mum) into that present so that Sol's reflections are punctuated by things in the present. In fact, I think it should probably be the other way around, that perhaps events in the present are punctuated from time to time by reflections on things that have happened in the past.

        Of course, these are all just suggestions and it's your story, not mine. But I think you've got some good material in these first few chapters that just needs focusing a bit more into action rather than reminiscence. Others may disagree and say that you should jump straight into the more major inciting incident in your story.

        All the best. Paul.

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        • Paul thank you so much for the great feedback!  I actually had a few ideas pop into my head while I was reading it.  I'm hoping have a good chunk of time this weekend to get starting on (more) editing/reworking.  

          Pamela 

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        • Hi Pamela, I agree with the above. But I have to say, I've read a fair bit of YA including having a go at one of my own, and although there was a lot of description, the story pulled me in straight away -- a good sign! Love the thread of the flowers/herbalism/botanist. And already this teen is an outcast and suppressing her emotions -- things which teens identify with. Most of that info and backstory could be included in one powerful introductory scene, perhaps, where Sol  is seen wilting the flowers because of her emotions (again), and things such as description and dialogue could bring in details of the house, her mother, her feelings about her mother and pretty much anything else, all in the now and looking forward. Good luck.

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          • Thank you Iren - that is encouraging to hear :)  I am receiving from helpful feedback from this group and am hoping to starting on working through them this weekend.  

            Pamela 

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          • HI Pamela


            I echo all of the above about getting your first draft drafted and a huge achievement well done. I read the chapter and can't add much to what's already been said, so I thought I'd focus on the elevator pitch - which is more of a short synopsis than an elevator pitch. Elevator pitches are normally between 20-30 words yours is 140, so work needed, but I'm sure you'll get there in the second or third draft but a few pointers. 

            I didn't know/don't know what a Fae is, so neither will an agent maybe? I had to google it and I'm quite well read. If you're going to have this in your elevator pitch you might need to waste a few words explaining what Fae's are. I'm originally from Glasgow, via Newcastle/London/leeds & Edinburgh but in Glasgow fae is where someone's from 'I'm fae Easterhouse' LOL!!

            Anyway, I'm sure you'll get there with the elevator pitch in time, and good luck with it all I like the premise.

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            • Ha! I see why that could be confusing :)  I have never written an "elevator" pitch before, so thank you for the feedback.  I tried writing a synopsis as well....but I think I'm a page and a half too long haha.  Someone needs to bang the word "concise" into my head. 

              Thanks!

              Pamela 

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