This fall, Plymouth State University offered a Special Topics in Writing course on Young Adult Fiction. This writing-intensive class, held by Professor Joseph Monninger (a veteran YA novelist), had students work on a singular, novel-length piece of YA fiction throughout the entire course.
Senior English major Shayla Locke was one of the students who dipped their toes into writing for young adults. Locke’s novel, Rise From the Ashes, follows a female protagonist as she searches for the truth about her family and the mysterious fire that killed them.
According to Locke, she found inspiration for Rise From the Ashes from a story she wrote as a 12-year-old. She describes Rise From the Ashes as a “grittier, more angsty” rewrite of that tale.
Locke said that she had wanted to flesh out the older story for a while, and when she saw that Young Adult Fiction was being offered, she decided that the course would be the perfect opportunity to do so.
Without feedback or experience, writing an entire novel can be extremely intimidating; that’s why taking a course with an experienced, published professor and a passionate group of fellow writers is so appealing. Locke backed this sentiment, saying that the most helpful part of Young Adult Fiction class was the opportunity for peer review.
“It was helpful to be exposed to different people’s ideas and opinions on each other’s stories, and it was also helpful to have consistent feedback once we got into our permanent groups,” said Locke.
The writers settled into standing peer review groups after the first few class periods and would meet with these groups weekly to go over their writing and word counts. Locke said that “it was nice to write alongside others and talk about our writing in and out of class.”
For Locke, reaching the word count deadlines was difficult, which is understandable; attempting to write a novel-length piece of writing in one semester is just as challenging as it sounds.
But Locke notes that while Rise From the Ashes still needs to be worked on, she did make significant progress on the novel throughout Young Adult Fiction. She will be completing the novel in the future, so keep an eye out for it!
Ready for an excerpt?
Read the first two chapters of Rise From the Ashes below!
Rise From the Ashes
By Shayla Locke
“Who seeks shall find.” — Sophocles
Crawling in the dark, thick smoke, I gasp for breath. I have to get to Aaron’s room and help him get out. Leukemia left him bedridden. There’s no way he can leave on his own. Feeling my way through the darkness, my hands touch his dented door. I push the door open. Where my brother’s body used to be was a monster.
It sat curled on his bed, an enormous, quivering mass of red scales. Spikes stick out of its spine and radiate out from its face. Its dark yellow eyes stare at me, sending tingles of terror up and down my spine.
Suddenly, waves of flames spring at me from its mouth. My arms jump to protect my face. Smoke and heat close their dark fingers around my throat, making me struggle for breath. After the flash, there was only darkness. Only smoke. Dark, choking. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t–
A hand on my shoulder pulls me out of my vision. My head snaps to look at the person it’s attached to. His long brown curls brush my face. The curve of his face and dark gray eyes are so familiar to me, but I can’t quite place where I’ve seen them before.
“Are you okay?” he asks me. I look around at my surroundings. Everyone is holding their drinks in red solo cups and staring at me. Dance music beats through the speakers. I’m on the ground. Fallen leaves lie all around me. The bonfire is right in front of me, spewing dark smoke into twilight.
“Everything’s fine! Nothing to see here!” My cousin Mary jumps in front of me, gesturing wildly towards the flames. “Enjoy the party!”
She turns back to me and the boy sitting next to me, who’s still touching me. She crouches down on the ground.
“Olivia, don’t ruin this for me. If you can’t hold it together, go back in the house or something, I can’t handle you spacing out while Wendy Andrews is at my party.”
The boy’s hand clenches tighter around my shoulder. The smoke from the bonfire still feels oppressive and I have trouble forcing breaths in and out of my chest.
“O-okay,” I say weakly, and she turns on her heel to get back to her friends. The boy next to me silently helps me up onto shaking legs and brings me to the back door of Mary’s house. I hate feeling so weak. I couldn’t even think of anything to say back to her. Before it happened, I would have chewed her out in front of all her friends and make them all ashamed to be around her. Now it’s all I can do to just keep breathing.
The boy sits me on a stool in the kitchen and watches me from across the fake granite counter. With each breath I take I can feel the terror start to leave my body. Once my hands stop shaking, I look at him more closely. His long mane of thick, curly brown hair passes his shoulders and his russet-brown skin seems to glow under the fluorescent lights in the kitchen. He’s not saying anything. The silence, marked by the ticking second hand of the clock above the stove seems to get heavier and heavier by the minute.
“So… I guess I should thank you?” I say, finally breaking the silence.
“Oh. Yeah, you’re welcome.” He smiles, revealing white, if a little crooked, teeth. I wait for him to continue, ask if I’m okay, introduce himself, I don’t know, something, but he continues looking at me. It’s something I’m still getting used to. The staring. But the longer he looks at me, the stronger the feeling gets that I know him from someplace.
“I-I’m Logan,” he stammers, holding out his right hand. I take it gingerly and shake, feeling rough calluses on his fingers. I’m suddenly hyper-aware of how slick my palms are from sweat and feel even more self-conscious.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
He smiles again, having successfully completed a social interaction with a horribly disfigured burn victim with only a little bit of awkwardness.
“I’m really sorry about what happened to your family,” he says. It’s hard not to be surprised, even though I’m sure the whole country knows what’s happened to my family at this point. It’s been in the news and gossip travels fast. Everybody says that they’re sorry, it’s just what you say when you have no idea how to even begin to empathize with what a person has gone through. He seems to mean it, though. He seems to know.
“I, uh, I guess I should get going now.” Logan nods to me and starts towards the front door. As he passes me, he reaches into his jean pocket and pulls out a set of headphones. They’re bright red with the Beats logo colored in black sharpie.
My heart stops. It can’t be. Drawing in the Beats logo was what Aaron did to his headphones as soon as he got them. A squeak inadvertently comes out of my mouth.
He’s almost out of the door when I finally gasp, “Wait.”
Logan stops, his hand on the doorknob, my big brother’s headphones around his neck. He turns to me.
Shock turns to anger.
“Where the hell did you get those headphones?”
His eyes widen. Rather than freezing, like I hoped he would, he throws the door open and runs. I jump off the stool and take up chase after him. Slamming the door shut behind me, I chase him through the suburbs. It’s darker out than I thought. His gray t-shirt blends in with the twilight, but I can still see Aaron’s headphones glinting around Logan’s neck.
“Hey!” I yell, but he doesn’t even turn around. As I race him through the streets of the suburb I can feel exhaustion start to take its toll on me. Spending weeks in a hospital bed isn’t the best way to stay in shape. The chilly night air stabs my lungs and I double over in pain. When I look up, he’s stopped running and is looking at me the same way one would look at a wounded wild animal. I start to get to my feet, but once I stand, he’s gone, somewhere in the woods at the very edge of the neighborhood.
“I want those back!” I yell into the woods. “I’ll find you!”
The only response I get is the wind gently rustling the multicolor leaves. I pull my hoodie over my head, shove my hands in my pockets, and stalk back towards my cousin’s house.
Those headphones were Aaron’s favorites. When I was going through what was left of my family’s things after the fire, I couldn’t find them. I’d assumed they burned like everything else, but… what if some things were still there, hidden in the stone chimney that survived or covered by ash?
And stupid people like Logan rooted around in there and took it all.
My fists tightened in my pockets. The threat was not an empty one. I would find him.
I stumble into the bathroom, wiping my eyes, then look up in the mirror. I jump. It’s been months, but sometimes I forget about the burn on my face. It covers about a quarter of my face. Stretching diagonally from the left corner of my mouth, up my cheek and finally ending at the top of my forehead, it just barely misses my left eye. I run my hands through my hair—it’s grown in the last few months, almost reaching my chin.
“Olivia!” Mary groans, knocking on the door. “Olivia, open this door ri–” I hear retching, so I pull the door open and guide her to the toilet. She empties the contents of her stomach.
“Wild night?” I ask, patting her back.
“Sh-shut up, close the door, I can’t–” she retches again– “let Mom and Dad hear me.”
I roll my eyes, shut the door behind me, and start my morning moisturizing ritual for my face. The dark circles around my eyes betray my lack of sleep. After I’d lost Logan, I spent at least five hours searching for his name and face online. Sure, there were a couple Logans, but none looked like the one with Aaron’s headphones.
“Hey, Mary,” I ask, rubbing cream into my burn. “Who was the guy who helped me last night?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know?” she moans. “I don’t know everyone who comes to my parties. But seriously, has that guy ever met a pair of scissors? Hello, it’s the ‘70’s, they want their hair back.”
Okay, Mary. Don’t even ask about what happened last night that made me need his help in the first place. I shudder, trying not to think about the flashback. The smoke… the heat of the flames… the monster… what even was that monster?
“Girls?” I hear Aunt Carrie knock at the door. “Is everything okay in there? What’s going on?”
“Fine! Everything’s fine!” Mary yells, not all that convincingly. She groans, gets to her feet, and flushes the toilet. Grabbing her hairbrush, she runs it through her long blonde hair until it looks somewhat presentable.
“Seriously, I need to know,” I mumble.
“Why? Did he get you pregnant?”
“Ugh, no.” I’ve never even kissed a boy before, never mind sex. “I just need to know, okay? Did he come in with anybody? Was there anybody else there who knew him?”
“Why don’t you just go interrogate everyone who was at the party, Ms. Reporter? Maybe one of them will give you the scoop,” she mocks and snatches her toothbrush out of the holder.
“Breakfast!” Aunt Carrie yells from the kitchen. “Downstairs, now!”
“Breakfast, breakfast!” Mary’s little sister Melody flings the bathroom door open with a toothy smile, then frowns at the two of us, confused. “Why are you in the bathroom together?”
“Morning, Melody.” I tousle her blonde pigtails. She giggles.
Mary spits toothpaste out in the sink and glares at her. “Melody, I swear to God, if you don’t go downstairs right now, I’ll tell Mom you crapped the bed last Tuesday.” Melody pouts and runs out of the bathroom.
“Jesus, Mary, would it kill you to be nicer to her?” I ask, putting my own toothbrush in my mouth.
“You’ve never had a little sister. Not everybody can be BFFs or whatever with their siblings like you and Aaron could.” I freeze at the mention of Aaron’s name. Mary notices. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
I start brushing my teeth again. We go through the rest of our morning routine in silence as I remember, again, that he and my parents are gone. I wish she would be nicer to Melody because that was me as a kid. Tiny, annoying, and nosy. But that didn’t matter to Aaron. We weren’t just siblings, we were friends. To think that there was any possibility that he saw me the way Mary saw Melody makes me sick.
I finish brushing my teeth and Mary comes down the stairs with me to the kitchen. Uncle Wells is leaning back in his chair at the head of the table, reading his newspaper. His plate is already clean. Melody sits to his left, already digging into her scrambled eggs and bacon. Aunt Carrie wipes down the countertops.
“Good morning, girls,” she says, wiping a stray blonde hair off her forehead. It’s easy to see that she’s Mary and Melody’s mom. My shade of blonde is darker than theirs.
“Morning,” I respond. Mary sits down across from Melody and I sit in an awkward spot between Mary and the other end of the table, where Aunt Carrie’s seat is.
“There’s the sleeping beauties,” Uncle Wells said, not looking up from his paper. “Nice to see you come down for breakfast this morning.”
Mary’s face flushes. She starts to pick at her eggs without really eating any. Once the counter is spotless, Aunt Carrie joins the table with a cup of yogurt. We all eat in silence.
It’s always mealtimes when I feel like I don’t belong in this house. This silence is normal for them, but when I was with my family, silence at the table always meant that there was something wrong. It was that way whenever Aaron’s grades came in. Whenever I got into a fight at school. Whenever Mom lost a case at work. Whenever Dad got a rejection letter. The day after Aaron was diagnosed with leukemia was one of the worst.
Right now, as I stare into Aunt Carrie’s strawberry yogurt, the silence reminds me of the day after Aaron had dyed his hair a bright cherry red.
I was waiting at the kitchen counter for my Pop-Tart to come out of the toaster. Dad was brewing coffee, like he did every morning. Mom came down the stairs in full lawyer gear, black pencil skirt, red blouse, black suit jacket, her honey-blonde hair pulled back in a severe bun. She kissed him on the cheek as he poured her a cup.
“Thanks, pumpkin,” she’d said.
“Sure thing, sunshine.”
It was a ritual as adorable as it was sickening.
“Bleeehhhh.” I’d said. Mom sat down next to me with her coffee, grabbed an apple out of the fruit bowl, and took a bite.
“Oh, Livi.” She tousled my hair. Dad poured himself his own cup of coffee– two creams and three sugars, and sat down on the other side of me. He focused on his yogurt, and Mom focused on her apple, waiting for Aaron to come downstairs to chew him out.
Sure enough, he’d come down to the bottom of the stairs, hair the color of the strawberries in Dad’s yogurt. He wasn’t sulking, which irritated the hell out of Mom. He strode to the kitchen, head high.
“Morning Mom, Morning Dad, Morning Livi!” He’d said, plugging in our blender and going into the fridge to get himself ingredients for his morning smoothie.
Mom glared at him as he brought spinach, blackberries, bananas, milk, and protein powder to the counter, dumped everything in the blender, and turned it on. After that blender was off, Aaron tried so hard to get our parents to talk to him. That silence was frosty.
“Mary, you’ve barely touched your food.” Aunt Carrie’s voice jerks me out of my memory. “You too, Olivia.”
“Not hungry,” Mary says and picks up her backpack. “Can I go to school now?”
“Hold on, now!” Uncle Wells snaps. “Since when are you so eager to get to school?” Mary winces at his loud voice.
“Just let her go, honey,” Aunt Carrie sighs, exhausted. “Come on girls, time to go.”
“Yaaaaay! Bye, Mommy!” Melody gets up from her seat and hugs Wells, then Carrie. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
After saying our goodbyes, Mary, Melody, and I all pile into Mary’s car. We drop Melody off at the elementary school, then continue towards Leeside High.
“Mary, please, if you know anything about him–”
“Why are you so desperate to know?” I look at her and I can see her right eyebrow raised. Damn. She wants drama, and she’s not going to tell me anything if I don’t first.
“He has Aaron’s headphones,” I confess. “I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but he had them.”
“Really?” Her eyebrows go up. “How do you know they were his? It could’ve been an honest mistake.”
“The logo was colored in and he ran away when I pointed it out.”
“Oh.” Mary’s eyes narrowed. “Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think that there was anything left out in the open for too long after your house… you know. According to my parents. I don’t know if he could have stolen it.”
“How else could he have gotten them?” I snap.
“Maybe somebody gave it to him.”
“Somebody?” I ask. “You don’t mean–”
“I don’t know, I’m just trying to give you some ideas.” Mary pulls up into a parking spot and put the car in park. “Maybe Q has something to do with it.”
Q. My brother’s ex-girlfriend. He gave her so much of his stuff when they were dating. It’s not too out of the way to think that he had given her his headphones, and maybe she gave them to Logan for some reason. Maybe she’s dating him now.
It was shortly after she broke Aaron’s heart that he got sick. Maybe it’s unfair of me, but I blame her for it.
“I don’t want to talk to her.”
Mary shrugged. “I don’t know, you want answers, that might be a way to get them. I’m just giving you ideas.”
“You just want to watch me confront her in the hall and see the drama unfold,” I snap, grabbing my backpack and opening the car door.
“Guilty.” She grins and grabs her own, then locks the car.