Saturday, May 9, 2015

#YayYA Critique Party: Entry #13

Name: Cass Newbould

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Title: Signal Against Noise

35-Word pitch: 16-year-old Haley was born a weapon. Her 15-year-old brother  born to repair the dying-lands. To maintain their identity, both mutants must accept their new roles in a world of humans or lose each other again.

First 500

Their first mistake was keeping me alive,
                                              unfortunately for them, it wasn't their last.

Sitting in our room, getting ready to start the day, I can’t get that thought out of my head.
When you’re born with the sole intention of being used by your government as a weapon, your choices aren't many.
Being a 16-year-old mutant with the ability to shift anything--shapes, emotion, space, blood, well… Daydreaming is the only thing that keeps the collar around my neck from choking the life out of me completely. What was Earth like before The great wars? Before all the chemical fallout that turned us into what we are today? To be a normal girl, with a normal life; yeah, that sure would be nice.

"Haley... Hey, Haley--where are you right now? You're totally spacing out again!  Girl, you’re never on the ground. Pretty soon we’ll need to leash you just to have a conversation!"

"If you don't watch it, Benni-boy, you’ll be having a conversation with my fist in a minute!"

Benjamin is my best-friend. I feel like strangling him on a daily basis, but I couldn't imagine life without him. Getting each other’s sense of humor goes far in a place where funny is unacceptable. A giggle escapes me. Ben raises one eyebrow.

"What horrible torture are you planning for me now?"

"Why ever would you think that, don't you know I'm a lady?"

We both erupt into laughter.

"Haley, you and I both know how very far from the truth that statement is, and with a giggle like that I can only imagine the pain you were dreaming to inflict on me."

"Well, to be honest, I was dreaming about punching you just for the simple fact of how stunning you look today, Dahhhling!"

Batting my eyes and drawing out the word darling, we fall into another laughing fit. We both know exactly to whom I am referring.  Miss Glasseu, our histories teacher, always calls Benni ‘Dahhhling’ and makes eyes at him. She's plainly infatuated, even though she's 10 years his senior. Then again, age has never really stopped anyone here from getting what they want. Or at least trying to.

"Are you going to class today mister?"

"Me? Aren't I always a model student?"

"Well mister model, that's a shame because I was thinking how lovely a day it is. Sun is shining, people are laughing.  Everyone is out having a good time. Such a travesty… What would you say to a little rainstorm?  It would be just awful for all these fun-loving citizens to get wet, don'tcha think?"

"Haley, that sounds like a horrible, terrible idea... I'm in! Who needs teaching anyway when you've already got class like me?" he says (winking), and I can't help it--I sock him in the arm--just because.
Feigning pain, he looks up.  “Ow, that hurt!”
That just makes me hit him again and we both fall to the floor, laughing hysterically. Physical strength is not my strong point.

Name: Cass Newbould

Twitter: @elusi0n

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Title: Signal Against Noise

35-Word pitch: Sixteen-year-old Haley was born a weapon. Her fifteen-year-old brother born to repair the destruction. Whether Haley decides to save herself or her brother's life, both mutants must accept their roles in a world of humans.

First 500

Their first mistake was keeping me alive. Unfortunately for them, it wasn't their last.

I can’t get that thought out of my head.

I need to get out of here. Today! Now!

What was Earth like before The Great Wars? Before all the chemical fallout that turned us into what we are today? To be a normal girl, with a normal life; yeah, that  would be nice.

"Haley... Hey, Haley--where are you right now?”

My eyes try to focus as I breathe slowly. My nails are digging into my clenched fists. I scoot over on the bed and Ben plops down hard beside me.

“ You're totally spacing out again!  Girl, you’re never on the ground. Pretty soon we’ll need to leash you just to have a conversation!"

"If you don't watch it, Benni-boy, you’ll be conversing with my fist in a minute!"

“Man, you’re touchy today,” Ben says. I shrug in agreement.

“I can’t take these walls anymore. They’re closing me in.” Looking at Ben’s face, I hope for the best, and say, “ I've got an idea, what would you say to a little redecorating?”

“Ohhhh no, last time you tried to get us out of here not only did you melt the floor, you ruined my best sneakers!”

Glancing at the new floorboards I imagine how they looked last week. Burned to a crisp. It was amazing I hadn't set the whole room aflame. Controlling fire is something I am going to need A LOT more practice with.

“I promise I won’t melt anything.”

My fingertip traces a line in the wall next to my bed. It leaves a path my brain wants to follow. I feel the concrete as it digs into my flesh. My finger melts away until it’s one with the wall. I push into the mass. The heaviness of the stone envelopes me. Skin wrapped in a hug, the pressure mounts the more I let myself go.

Can I make my whole body transform into concrete? I think of the great wall that separates us from the human citizens. This could work, we could get out of here this time.

Run. Escape. Now!

“Ahh, Haley?” says Ben, startling me out of my reverie and I blink.
When you’re born with the sole-intention of being used by your government as a weapon your choices aren't many… Daydreaming is the only thing that keeps the collar around my neck from choking the life out of me completely.

Coming back to myself I smirk in Ben’s direction. Ben sets his shoulders and looks like he’s steeling himself for destruction.

“Silly bird,” Ben says and tugs my hair, “We are going to be fine.”  I lean into him and sigh.

“So... I just came up with a plan of escape, you interested?” Under the black cotton tee-shirt I feel his muscles contract with the excitement the idea of escape brings. His shoulder a pillow for my head. “ I know you are, I can feel it.”

Please say yes, please?


  1. Hi Cass,

    Your concept sounds very interesting and I really like your opening paragraphs, in particular your opening line, which is very strong. However, the conversation with Benni lost me a bit. I think it’s because it’s an intimate chat between two people who know each other well, but I don’t know either of them yet so I felt quite distanced as a reader.

    Also, the conversation doesn’t move the story forward. So Benni is her best friend and they get each other and each other’s sense of humour, but I’d expect that anyway of best friends and I think there are other ways of showing this. All the reader really learns is that the histories teacher has a crush on Benni. Perhaps this is important information for the plot, but somehow I don’t feel it is.

    While a conversation like this could work well in another part of the story, when the reader knows the characters better, I think the opening needs more of a hook. For example, how does Haley shift blood or space? How far removed is a mutant from a normal girl? Hayley goes to school, has a best friend, seems to think that in earlier times she would have been a normal girl but she also seems to dislike humans. There is a lot of interesting material and some great ideas here. I think you can do more with them.

    I think you can still have a conversation between Hayley and Benni, if that is what you want, but they should be discussing something they have to do, somewhere they have to go, someone they have to see, something that is necessary and relevant to the plot. The opening is too important to have them just goofing around and play-fighting.

    Hope this is of help and best of luck with it!

  2. I love the italicized bit at the beginning, but after that you kind of lose me. It's not that the writing or the voice is bad, but there's just not a lot going on in this scene. It's just two people talking. Two people that despite us being told are mutants with abilities are acting like normal kids doing normal stuff. In order to both establish your world and your characters you really do need to start with more of a hook. I'd take a good hard look at where the action really picks up in your story and then find a way to make your opening foreshadow it. Make it interesting. Show us your characters doing crazy mutant stuff, even if they are just goofing off. Make the goofing off have consequences. Stuff like that. I like your premise a lot and with some fleshing out it could be really interesting.

  3. I like the opening line, though I'm not normally a fan of vague pronouns in openings! I agree that you could pick up the pacing after that. The pitch is good at establish character, but I think the stakes could be a little clearer.

  4. Hi Cass!

    This looks like a cool idea... however there's not much explaining what's going on except that there are two friends joking around together in some kind of school and at least the one is a mutant.
    However, opening line: epic!
    Idea: awesome!
    Sarcastic level and messing around: a little bit too much
    Also, is this in past tense or present? I couldn't quite figure that out but I am leaning more on present tense :)

    ~Cayla (#2)

  5. Starting at the top!

    Genre: I applaud unrepentant UF! You can do eet!

    Pitch: Spell out the ages, in the 35 it still counts as one word but looks cleaner. Change Dying-lands it reads as a cheat even if it's legit.

    Now the hard stuff. "accept their roles or lose" is, sadly, not the stakes that'll get you moving forward in contests. I say this from experience. My MS is stake resistant (even the MC doesn't want things that are interesting to contests. This is why I focus on queries.) Bring it in and make it more personal. Focus just on Haley, "Save humanity, or save her brother" that's stakes and strong but we wonder why it's on her.

    Text: You have fallen into the backstory trap. This is good stuff to have in early drafts, but you need to take it out of the polished work. This is you the author, talking to you, the author, about the characters and why they're doing the things they're doing.

    Take this again, but write it as Haley the character describing the events that have or are happening. How does she think about Benni. I seriously doubt it's a cohesive history of their life together. But you can imply a lot of that by comparing the conversation to one they've had forever, etc. The weight of assumption can work in your favor and strengthen the voice!

    Others do a much better job at the text, so I'll leave that to them.

    All the caveats apply, my suggestions are things for you to look at and say, "No, she's crazy, what I SHOULD do is..." and make it a million times better than I could ever think of, because that's the usual response. I just want to give you an outside pair of eyes on the piece.

    Best of luck!

    -Lana (@Muliebris)

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  7. I agree that the opening line is awesome, but - to be SUPER PICKY - it also contains what I'm pretty sure is a comma splice. The first comma needs to be a period. I think that would boost the impact of the second statement even further, for an added bonus.

    I found there was a big disconnect between the beginning and the dialogue. You have Hayley longing to be a normal girl, but for the rest of the excerpt, there's nothing distinguishing her from one. I agree that putting the goofing off in the context of something showing their abilities might work better. Or if funny is unacceptable here, are they maybe making an effort to keep it down and not get busted (or forgetting to)? Can you give us some sense of the room, what makes it oppressive? If Hayley was born to be a weapon, how much sense would she have of what "normal" looks like? What kind of propaganda has she been fed about her identity? What does normal mean to her, in concrete terms?

    Watch out for occasional redundancies (show vs. tell) - e.g. "Batting my eyes and drawing out the word darling, we fall into another laughing fit." No need to say she's drawing out the word, we can hear it from the dialogue. Maybe "Batting my eyelashes cracks him up again." I think the hilarity might be a little too much here, given the somber tone of the opening; I'd suggest aiming to sustain the grim background throughout the wisecracking. Again, having them in the middle of some task or training session might help there.

    [Reposting comment to fix a typo :P]

  8. Hey Cass,

    Problem #1. They are laughing too much. The dialogue isn't that funny to earn a laughing fit, it's more of a gmile smile, or maybe a snort. It's just way over the top, and because I, as the reader, don't understand the joke, it is actually separating me from these characters, as if I were watching someone with an inside joke rather than being in on the joke.

    Problem 2, is the lack of stakes. What happens if they get caught making it rain? What is the cost of using magic? They seem a tad too invincible for my taste, and all they are doing is making fun of people which is separating me from them more.

    3, I know from reading your query that Ben goes missing and it's a huge part of her goal and stakes to save him, so it's important to show the reader that Haley cares for him, but it's way more important to make the reader care about Ben.

    Right now I feel very distanced from him. Could you rewrite this scene with Haley crying over something, and Ben sweetly talks to her, and makes her feel better? Would that still work within the story?

    All in all, I absolutely believe in the concept, and in your ability to tell this story, I just don't think the opening is working yet.

    Best of luck!

  9. I thought your pitch was really cool, but I wasn't exactly sold by the first 500. Yes, she's speaking to her best friend, but it doesn't move the story along. In addition, I also thought it was kind of weird how they're joking about a teacher, who've you revealed to be at least 10 years older than Benni, to be hitting on him. I don't know; maybe it's just me. Also, I noticed that in some spots you have some run-on sentences. Maybe break those up to make the dialogue flow a bit smoother. I'm sure this story has great potential beyond these first 500, but it just isn't working for me right now.

  10. Sheena I know huh. I'm glad you have more of an idea since you know the query. It all comes together in the next 3 pages as to why they are being so blase about the storm and the humans and whatnot. I just didn't want to jump right into the action without them having a bit of banter first to see their interplay as he's the only one in her life she is allowed to not be serious with or isn't afraid of her :/

    ahah even the next paragraph that didn't fit the 500 explained the laughter cause she goes on the explain that for a mutant with amazing powers her physical abilities are the strength of a 5 yr olds, and so anytime she even attempts to hit him they find it laughable as its sooo pointless. Maybe I will just rewrite the whole first 500 and then let that part be the next so it makes more sense. too bad it wasn't the first 1500 lol :P

  11. In most contests all you get is 250, (and every one of us hate it) but that's the first page in most cases, and that's what you get in a bookstore when someone picks up your book and glances at the first page. You have to make sacrifices in some of the art to increase the clarity until you get the readers to trust you.

    It's hard, but worth it!

  12. True that Lana :) I'm still a contest newb so all this info is invaluable to me. Totally worth it. Especially since in actuality that first page is always the first written and by the time I've finished that book I've grown (hopefully) so much more lol. I should make a formula to get over it something like remove ego+insert knowlege X take advice= WIN hahahaha then perhaps I can see over my faults to a shiny pretty interesting and grabbing first page ;)

    New mantra FTW lol

  13. oh yeah, I totally forgot my twitter handle I'm @elusi0n everyone :)

  14. I am not the strictest disciple of the 'Show don't tell' philosophy. But, concerning emotional connections between the two, their is a lot of telling. Instead of telling us he's the MC's best friend. Illustrated. Same with the strangling bit. You do that some. Work a bit better, then get rid of the telling lines.

  15. Hi Cass!!

    I'm going to crit your entry thoroughly, but remember that all advice is subjective in the art world and you are more than welcome to burn mine if it's totally opposite of what you think is best for YOUR story! :D

    Okay, starting at the beginning, YAY URBAN FANTASY!! :D I have a completed urban fantasy trilogy currently sitting on the shelf because, while I love it and know it's good, it needs some dusting off. But just finding another writer of it makes me miss it XD XD XD

    Your pitch is ALMOST THERE. I think the only thing that confuses me is, so Haley and her brother aren't human? Is it just because they are mutant humans? Or (as I read it, but this is just me) is it because they are part of an entirely different, parallel society? I think just a little more clarity on this count will give your pitch the punch it needs. And believe me, I KNOW how hard it is to get ALL THE THINGS into 35 words. I think I spent a few hours coming up with my own for my entry... and it's not even a completed MS!! But I definitely think it's almost there :D

    Okay, so your first 500 is great, don't cut it. I just think this isn't the right place to start. I hate hearing that myself, so feel free to ignore me if you wish XD But my two cents is this: this scene is perfect for later, when we've met Haley and Benni and seen them do their stuff a little. I think wherever you start, you need some grit and action, because your pitch certainly promises some of that. Starting smack in the middle of a hilarious conversation is like, for us readers anyway, walking into a dinner party and immediately being sat with two uproarious people we never met. We may try to laugh along with them, but we know nothing about them to relate to them beyond whatever joke they are making :D That said, the back and forth between your characters is VERY YA. And I have a frustration with YA writers not writing legitimate teenage conversation. I think you've got it, here. I really do XD I just think that maybe you should save it for a little bit.

  16. First off, doesn't Rachel give the BEST constructive criticism to our contest entries? Love reading what she writes on everyone's!

    Okay, now for my turn:

    PITCH: I think you should make the first two sentences one sentence, and instead of the period after weapon, use a comma. And maybe instead of “in a world of humans” write “in the human world” — otherwise, I like it. Those are some definite high stakes!

    FIRST 500:

    I like the inner monologue that starts this story off, and I liked where this story was going, but feel like the scene where you go into detail about the histories teacher detracts from the seriousness of how you’ve introduced this story. Looking through what others have said, Madame Von Bee took the words out of my keyboard. But Rachel's point is valid too, that this scene could work better later in the story.

    Your style of writing has a nice flow, just watch for grammar/syntax stuff where you can (i.e. no hyphen between best friend)

  17. Re: the Pitch -
    All I would add is a comma after brother. Otherwise I think it works.

    Re: the Excerpt -
    Don't like that you use "first mistake" and then say "unfortunately it wasn't their last" because by listing the first as first it implies there are more. Minor issue but since it opens the book, I'd look at tweaking it.
    Love the line about the collar around her neck choking her. Great visual and also works on a figurative level.
    As a reader I need more info interspersed with the dialogue, especially because you've just established how she'd like to be normal then show us a perfectly normal scene between two seemingly perfectly normal people.
    Another minor point, though "to whom" is correct, it reads awkwardly with the rest of the narration. Are you using it because it's right, or because your protagonist would use it?
    Seems like an interesting idea. I'm curious about where it will go.

    (sorry if this posts twice, having some internet issues)

  18. Me, again!
    On the pitch. I see what you tried to do, but you need to push a little farther for stakes. And I only say this because of the sheer number of contests I did not get into on an "accept their fate" stakes when the feedback to me was all the same.

    You need a bite to it. One thing to do is flip it:

    "No matter what, they have to perform these roles, but Haley's going to do everything she can to make sure they survive."

    Once you get it saying the things you want in a way that compels the reader forward, go back through and swap out words for voicier, more "loaded" terms that imply bigger things than the words you used initially. Don't sacrifice clarity, but do make it seem like you've used a lot more words by picking words that sound or imply more meaning than the straight forward words you've chosen.


  19. YES, I like where you're going with this - you've definitely added a lot more momentum! Now they're hatching an escape plan right away and we get a clear sense of the extraordinary abilities as well as the general outlines of the world (wall separating them and human population is very helpful orientation).

    I think you could further strengthen your opening if, instead of focusing on the larger world background like Great Wars and chemical fallout, you get further into how intolerable this place is for Hayley. Maybe take the italics off the opening sentence so you have something like...

    Keeping me alive was their first mistake. Unfortunately for them, it wasn't their last.

    I lie rigid on the narrow bed, fists clenched, my nails digging into my palms. [Looking out the window maybe? Does it have bars over it? Has chemical fallout altered the colour of the sky?]

    *I need to get out of here. Today! Now!*

    "Haley...?" [etc.]

  20. I'm going to back Lana up on the pitch, it's lacking clear stakes. I can tell that they're there, but you need to bring them forward. As for the 500, I think you still need to drop most of the backstory. We don't know need to be told this is post apocalyptic or what they are. You do a fine job showing they're a) imprisoned, b) have powers and c) bored out of their minds and hoping to get free. Those are all good elements and they're getting a bit downplayed with the beginning that starts with things that are not now. If you can show that the world is different. A different colored sky, obviously different clothing, possibly some futuristic style slang you might get some more traction on the setting without just spelling it out for us. I do like that it changes from them goofing off and talking about a teacher to planning an escape. You keep the great relationship stuff, but a great deal of urgency to the story. Good luck and I hope this helps.

  21. Vast improvement. You found a great balance, show us what is going on in your MC's head w/o sounding overly piney. I don't mind they way you have given us a hint of what is going on, without bogging us down in the details. And, you shade that relationship between the two just right.

  22. Yay! I like it and I'm really loving the new pitch.

  23. Sorry if this gets posted twice! First time it didn't show up.

    Pitch: I love stories about siblings, so this grabs me immediately. I like to know what Haley is a weapon against. The stakes seem to be that only she OR her brother can survive. If this is the case, I’d make it more clear. Also does she care if her brother dies? Are they close even though they seem to have opposite roles in society? Try to work in a little emotional pull into your pitch. In 35 words. ☺

    “I need to get out of here”. I’d state where ‘here’ is. Is she on earth, or just wondering about it from somewhere else?

    Who is Ben? A boyfriend, a friend or her brother? Make that clear, without going into too much backstory. A couple words is fine. Also, is he a human or a someone like Haley?

    “When you’re born with the sole-intention of being used by your government as a weapon your choices aren't many.” I really like this sentence. Just an idea, but I think it would make a great opening line.

    Who is speaking in the last paragraph? Unclear.

    I really like the idea of someone created for the sole purpose of being a weapon turning against her creator. This has so much potential. Best of luck!