Many thanks to Mandy Keene who has sent us an excerpt from her novel, The Ill-Made Witch. We’ll leave this post live for a week, during which time we’ll welcome any constructive comments. At the end of the week, the author will receive a free critique from one of our writing tutors. (If you’d like to share your work for critique, please see here for all the necessary information.)
Mattie hated hospital food.
Today it was bread that was older than she was. She had no appetite, but all her movements were being watched. Everything, from the beeping of the pulse monitor to each sentence she said. But there was no point complaining to anyone. She could almost hear their replies: “Well, you landed yourself here.”
Mattie scowled at the brown lump on the hospital tray. Simple carbs are a waste of my time.
Elaine came to visit later that day. She was barely stable herself; her eyes were red, and her voice cracked, as if shehad been sobbing earlier.
A few days ago, Mattie would’ve felt guilty. Now she just didn’t care. Besides, thanks to her little stunt she pulled, she had learned a few things about hospitals. For starters, they didn’t really check when their food expired; Mattie had dodged the rotting yogurt, but her hospital roommate wasn’t so lucky. They also preferred to have beds arranged like barracks. The more patients, the more dough. And not to mention the tests. In the first twelve hours Mattie had taken a blood test, glucose test, and an MRI. Ms. Fay had engaged in a shouting match with the nurses but lost; the medical bill Mattie had racked up would not be a light one. Except this time the blame were pointed in her direction.
She had been in her bed for the past week. The hospital had multiple channels, but none of them were particularly interesting. There was the news of course, but when was it actually things she was interested in? Most channels spent their way blaming people for how things turned out, how the United States was crumbling into a deficit, how Muslims and African Americans were the cause of all evils, how states were threatening to secede. Most of the time she disregarded it though; it’s not like people actually listened to those things.
The brown lump ended up in her throat. Right now, all Mattie wanted was privacy, and she knew nurses would be down her back if she left her food untouched. She wanted to sink into her bed and let the sheets devour her and become a puddle so she didn’t have to see them anymore….
A noise caught her attention; she could hear footsteps down the hall. For a second, she was alert—was that brown curls she saw, was it really him? “Percy?!” She felt a rush of anticipation down her spine, she sat up, her heart pounding. “Perce–I”.
She blinked at the person standing at her door side and frowned. I’m having live dreams. It was Ms. Fay.
Mattie groaned to herself. Didn’t her guardian have anything better to do than visit her? Mattie was a lost cause, they both knew it. At this point, she was done trying to hope people would care for her.
Ms. Fay was a beauty once. Her hair, greying, fell to her waist in waves. Middle-aged, she had the body of a healthy twenty-something: lean, fit, yet not excessively skinny. She was dressed formally, as if she were in a business meeting as opposed to the ER.
She looked disappointed as she asked, “Why did you do this?”
Mattie stared at her defiantly. Why? They clearly didn’t know. Perhaps they never would. Did they know that feeling of having everyone who cared about you being ripped apart? Obviously not, Ms. Fay hadn’t even bothered saying a simple “hello”.
Mattie shot her the most fake smile she could muster while maintaining a higher-than-usual voice: “I wanted the cheesecake dessert option.” She pointed to the hospital menu.
Mattie noticed Ms. Fay clenching her fist and could’ve sworn she saw a vein throb; patience was something both of them lacked. “Matilda”
Can you just leave already?! “You wouldn’t understand.”
Ms. Fay inhaled, she was clearly annoyed. “Does this have anything to do with Klaus?”
Where did that come from? “Sure,” said Mattie, looking at the floor.
“Matilda, what’s the problem?”
Mattie opened her mouth, only to close it. No, she wouldn’t understand, she wouldn’t know. What’s the problem? Mattie almost laughed, as it were always that simple.
But Ms. Fay said next worked her up the most: “Percy will turn up, don’t worry.” Mattie could feel the tension already building in her body.Will you ever stop?! She had had enough of the sugar-coating and hope-baiting. She’d rather he be dead than be in a state limbo like this. Her brother wasn’t going to come back. She was sick of false hope.
It took all her willpower to stop herself from shouting. “Go. Away,” she said between clenched teeth before instantly regretting it. Ms. Fay glared at her before sighing and finally leaving the room.
Mattie bit her lip. She shouldn’t have lashed out. Ms. Fay was the one who have provided her with a home and education for so long. And now that Mattie was seventeen, after her birthday she could take it away with a snap of her fingers.
Mattie lay back. The walls was dissolving, the lights were going out. She felt herself falling…except this time she could see everything. She closed her eyes and let herself see it all, even though she just wanted it to stop: Percy was in class. She was running home from the bus stop, crying. When would this cycle ever end? The door was open, her mother was lying on the couch, she was still in scrubs. She saw her mother stand and ran as Devina Clarke scooped her daughter up in her arms. “Mama, they laughed at me!”
Devina didn’t bother asking who “they” was. Some days the bullying wasn’t so bad, but once it reached a point when Mattie asked the teacher to call her mother so she could leave school.
Devina pulled her towards her body. “Why?”
“The teacher asked if you would rather be pretty or smart.”
Devina was smiling, Mattie did not like this. She was crying, her mother shouldn’t be smiling. “Mattie, what did you choose?”
Devina looked proud. “You should be laughing at them”
And then Devina disappeared and Mattie was screaming and she was falling again….
“NOOOOOO!!!” Mattie’s back flopped against the hospital bed as her breath spluttered. It was just a dream, calm down it was just a dream.
“Can you keep it down?!” said a voice from the end of the room.
“Sorry!” she shouted back. Not again. In the past week Mattie had been waking up from nightmares, occasionally waking up some patients with her. Sometimes they were her mother, sometimes they were Klaus. The faces kept on changing. But the feeling of suffocating and drowning into her bed remained constant.
Now, for an overview of the whole novel, here’s the blurb of The Ill-Made Witch
Mattie Nichols’ life has been black and white ever since her brother left her.
With her mother dead, her sister distant, and her best friend betraying her in the worst way possible, her will to wake up everyday was done. Her life was over, and she wanted it to say that way.
But when a sudden trauma changes her in a way no one would expect, she doesn’t have a choice. Forced to deal with her newfound abilities while holding her family together, Mattie agrees to her sister’s request to find their brother again. Their journey takes them to San Francisco where Mattie realizes there is more to her family than she knows
Now let us know what you think in the comments below – thanks!
Thanks for sharing this extract, which I enjoyed reading. You have a good plan for a novel here, and as Amy mentioned you get very close to Mattie’s perspective. Importantly, Mattie is a character we can root for – she’s an underdog who has suffered bullying and bereavement, and she is at a low point when the novel opens. I think this makes us warm to her and we want to see her succeed.
And from what you’ve told us about the synopsis, it seems you have plans to take this protagonist on a big journey that will delight and satisfy your readers. But my concern is that this opening won’t hook readers and won’t persuade them to join you on that journey.
Let me pick up on two things that Jan said, which I think are the main areas to work on: “I’m sort of lost in time and space here” and “it’s maybe too much of the wrong type of suspense.”
Regarding the former, I’d encourage you to remember – to worship – the importance of specificity and accuracy. It really is worth doing your research and thinking exactly what this particular hospital room is like. Do they really serve a meal that’s just stale bread? Is she really in the Emergency Room for a week? These details may not seem important, but they are. As the Great Vladimir Nabokov put it, “Caress the detail, the divine detail.” Facts are eloquent, and there is usually more power in stating a specific truth in a clear and literal way than there is in exaggerating, generalising, or saying something vague. Providing us with interesting and specific concrete details will also give you an alternative to describing facial expressions (see here: https://onlinewritingtips.com/category/specific-concrete-detail/page/2/ and here: https://onlinewritingtips.com/2016/04/18/zadie-smiths-on-beauty-telling-the-story-through-sensory-detail/)
Then there is the question of suspense. At present, you’re – deliberately – failing to convey all the facts of the story. We know that Mattie is in hospital and we know that she is there for something that could be deemed her fault – maybe she got drunk and fell from a garage roof. Maybe she tried to kill herself. Maybe she refused to take her medicine. We don’t know. You mention characters such as Klaus and Elaine without explaining who they are or why they’re important. We need to know!
Now, you’re thinking is probably that we will be sufficiently curious to find out that we’ll keep reading. But actually that isn’t how suspense works. Suspense works by explaining a situation and making us care about it – then we want to find out how it will be resolved. Imagine a basketball match is on TV: before the match, the commentators will tell us as much as they can about the two teams, their rivalry, and their relative chances of winning. People who like basketball will then watch to find out how the contest will be resolved. The commentators won’t say: “There’s going to be a basketball match, and you’ll have to wait and see who’s playing. We won’t show you the lineups but you’ll probably have figured them out by the second quarter.”
Similarly, in a novel, the author’s job is to tell us all the most important information as quickly and as accurately as possible. The exception, of course, is when the viewpoint character doesn’t know: for instance, in a whodunit, a detective might not know who the murderer is and we read on for the point at which she and we find out. In your novel, Mattie doesn’t know what has happened to her brother, so that’s a mystery we can wait to hear resolved. But she does know why she’s in hospital, who Klaus is, who Elaine is, and so we should know these things too. Writing is first of all a really, really difficult act of communication (see here: https://onlinewritingtips.com/2015/01/03/to-hell-with-suspense-a-brief-history-of-writing-for-authors-and-creative-writers/). You’re doing a great job at something very difficult, but I think you can make it easier for yourself and your readers if you concentrate on conveying all the important information as simply and accurately as possible. It’s important to understand that prose works differently from a screenplay in terms of how and when we need to learn what’s going on.
I hope that helps and thanks so much for sharing your work. Thanks, too, to Amy and Jan for their insightful comments. Please find an annotated copy of your extract here: mandy-keene-annotations.
Keep going with your novel, Mandy – you have a great story to tell and it’s worth working at making the opening as excellent as possible! 🙂