First Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

I’m very excited to share the First Place winner of the novel beginnings contest. This is a contemporary MG story and one that I think will have you cracking up and loving the voice. It’s by Anita Nolan and is called ELLIE AND THE KING. Read on to see why I picked it.

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Lisa Marie Presley and I have a lot in common. Maybe it’s not obvious, since she’s older than my mother and has been married to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage, among others, and I, at the age of thirteen, have been married to no one.

This is a great opening line and paragraph. It also sets up an interesting problem. The narrator says they have a lot in common, then goes on to outline how they couldn’t be any more different. And yet…

But we both have Elvis for a dad.

Ah, there it is! The moment I was hooked.

The only difference is—her dad really was Elvis.

My dad, on the other hand, just thinks he’s Elvis. Okay, maybe he doesn’t really believe he is, but he plays along with the people who play along with him pretending to be Elvis.

I don’t think I have ever read a plot conflict about an Elvis impersonator, er, tribute artist. 🙂 I love her thoughts on him and his audience, how he plays along and they play along with him, it sums everything up in a tight little sentence.

Whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my father—I do. He ‘s taken care of me since my mother left when I was three months old.

But sometimes I wish he were a normal dad, with a normal hobby, like woodworking, or golf, or creating sculptures from tree trunks with a chain saw.

No, my dad wants to be Elvis. How humiliating is that?

Thank you, Dad. Thank you very much.

Love the Elvis nod at the end of this mini-section here. While there are moments where the voice strains just slightly into overused “sarcastic teen” territory — “Whatever” or “How humiliating is that?” — we do get some nice humor here, and some odd details (“creating sculptures from tree trunks with a chain saw”) that show us a true, idiosyncratic character. We also get a little family history here, but not too much. The big lesson in this contest so far — don’t weight the beginning down too heavily with backstory and exposition. See how little other writers are doing and how it feels like just enough.

“I’m adopted. It’s the only possible explanation.”

The Piercing Pagoda kiosk at the mall provides excellent cover for my friend Lindsey and me while a group of kids from school—the popular ones—stroll past, but I duck lower anyway. I don’t know why I worry, because I’m one of the more invisible people at school. But if anyone connects me with the man dressed in full Elvis regalia standing across the way, my name will flash through every IM in Cranford Middle School, and possibly the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Locates the reader, gives us a snappy line of dialogue and grounds us in the scene and the moment that’s happening. We also get a little bit more context for this character and her social life, or lack thereof. I like that we jump into scene quickly.

Lindsey glances at the older ladies—it’s always older ladies—lined up to meet my dad, and shakes her head. “There’s only one problem with the adoption theory. How do you explain your eyes?”

That is the problem. I’ve tried to convince myself that I look nothing like my father—and I don’t—except for my dark green eyes, complete with little blue flecks. I guess the adoption theory can’t be right, but as my father bursts into song, I wish it were.

The challenge of how to describe the physical traits of a first person character is a constant one. Here, the writer does a good job of giving us some physical detail that works into the story. This is an icky trick that all first person writers have to do at some point, and this is a rather elegant solution. (I also love the “it’s always older ladies” aside. Good voice.)

The kids from school hang at the edge of the crowd, pointing at Dad and laughing. My face flushes and I have a hard time swallowing. I wish Dad would keep the Elvis stuff out of the mall and away from anyone I know.

Gram says I shouldn’t be embarrassed. Everyone has a few skeletons hanging in their closets. Unfortunately for me, my skeleton is the one dressed in gold lamĂ© singing Love Me Tender in front of the Cinnabon.

What a terrific image to end the excerpt on! And there is great interiority here, so Ellie’s big predicament — and moment of panic at the mall — is beginning to be very clearly felt by the reader. There’s also tension. They’re hiding. The popular kids are on the prowl. Dad is gyrating. You get one guess, and one guess only, about what could possibly happen next. And with this voice and this sense of humor, I really do want to see it unfold after reading this snippet, don’t you?

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The contest concludes tomorrow with the announcement of the Grand Prize winner. Thank you to everyone for reading these entries and commenting. Keep your thoughts comin’!

Second Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

Our Second Place winner is a paranormal YA romance, HALO & WINGS, by J.R. Hochman. This is a funny voice, which is one of the things that I think are key for paranormal these days, and gets us into the “inciting incident” right away. We’re plunged into conflict and carried along into the rest of the story without pause. Check it out!

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I died an extremely dumb death.

There is a whole lot of “I died and now here’s my screwed up afterlife” YA books hitting the market these days, but I was pulled in by the voice and humor here right away. It’s also in-your-face and a bit confrontational. Sometimes this irks me, here, I want to read on.

Picture this: On the Riverville High tennis court, I stared at the sky, thinking my opponent’s shot was going long, but the wind whipped up and the tennis ball hung in the air, blowing into play. So I leaned back on my heels, brought my arm out and wham! I fell . . . my big ass hitting first, then my head just as hard, my brain bouncing inside my skull. Darkness swept over me. Not sudden darkness, mind you, but a curtain slowly coming down.

Confrontational again with the “picture this” but, you know what? I do! And the author uses vivid imagery. From the wind whipping up to the ball hanging in the air, to “my brain bouncing inside my skull” and “a curtain slowly coming down.” The language is also very economical — the writer gets a lot of impact, a lot of different description, with few words here. There’s also the humor of “my big ass” and lots of action. And, in the second paragraph, the character’s dumb death begins. There’s no way the writer could’ve known, but I spent all four years in high school playing varsity singles tennis.

I didn’t die straight away, and I vaguely recall opening my eyes for a moment. Girls from the tennis team stood over me and said, “Sarah, are you okay?”

“Hrrrrppphh mrrrukkee,” I gurgled. Translation: help me.

Really like the quirky sound effects here. Conveys what’s going on with her and how poorly she’s doing without her telling us.

No one could. A vicious pull tore me inside out. My body remained on the ground while my soul–another self hidden inside me, as if I were a Russian nesting doll–came tumbling free. I tried to crawl back inside my body, slipping it on like an ill-fitting coat. The arms were too long, the legs too short, and the eye holes no longer lined up. Terrified, I rolled over on my side and screamed until my voice was drowned out by the arriving ambulance.

I don’t know about the soul being “another self hidden inside me,” as I don’t know whether she’s defining what a soul is — a bit unnecessary — or defining how souls “work” in this particular book and its world — separate selves that can come clean from the body. What I really love are the images here. In her effort to “crawl back inside my body,” she tries to slip “it on like an ill-fitting coat” but “the eye holes no longer lined up.” That’s an image I have NEVER heard used before, and it goes to show — after reading thousands of manuscripts, I can still be surprised by good writing! Love the quick pace again… we have the ambulance’s arrival already.

“She’s not breathing.” A paramedic checked my pulse, pounded my chest, and tried to breathe life into my lungs. It didn’t matter. Nobody was home.

The only thing I want to know here is where her soul is relative to her body in this moment, since “nobody was home” in her corpse.

Only one month into my junior year of high school, with so much unaccomplished–finding a steady boyfriend, winning a tennis scholarship, getting a driver’s license–life was over.

Quick biographical catch-up. Once again, it’s spare and gives us only the info we need.

Worse than the fear of dying were my thoughts about never seeing those I loved again. How could Mom, who’d never recovered from Dad divorcing her, manage alone? I knew she’d fall apart. What about Jason and Liz? Who would my friends tell their secrets to? Maybe a million people didn’t count on me, but the few who did really needed me.

And now we get the people in her life and her emotions about them. Look at how much we know from this one paragraph? This is a sly way to introduce backstory right at the beginning of a novel — oh, my life is flashing before my eyes! — but it totally works in the context of the plot so far, so it doesn’t seem cliche. Notice that the writer never has the character tell the reader: And then my life flashed before my eyes…

This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t. It had to be a mistake.

But it wasn’t. The paramedics loaded my body–just a shell, not the real me–into the ambulance on a stretcher. I watched them drive off in a cloud of exhaust.

Too pathetic to face my new reality, I relived the moments leading up to my death over and over like a YouTube clip. Each time, my life ended the same stupid way.

The only thing that’s missing here, for me, is what the “new reality” is like. Her soul is just left standing there… what is the rest of the world like? Different? Are people crying and freaking out? I’d love it if she came out of interiority for a bit and take in the scene. Internal conflict versus external conflict is a constant balance in writing.

I sniveled and sobbed until I was an empty vessel with nothing more to give. Then, I dry heaved. Sad. Sad. Sad. This was so not me. I was practically in a fetal position, about ready to suck my thumb, when a funny thing happened. Looking down at the puddle of tears on the ground, I saw my own pitiful reflection and a strength awoke within me.

Enough of this, Sarah. Enough. Get your shit together.

This is the only place where I think things aren’t clear. “An empty vessel with nothing more to give” is a bit vague. Also, the writer is ascribing a lot of visceral actions to a soul. A soul is crying and dry heaving and getting ready to suck her thumb but… those are all very physical things that a body might do. CAN she cry? Apparently she can issue tears, since there’s a puddle. Now I’m starting to wonder what the rules of this world are and how much physical effect/presence/feeling souls have. But I would still definitely read on.

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I’ve tried to mix up my winners so that you get a little bit of everything. The Honorable Mention was more fantasy, the Third Place Winner was literary YA, this is paranormal romance YA and… here are clues for the next two winners… we have a contemporary YA mystery and a contemporary MG, in no particular order. Stay tuned!

Third Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

The Third Place winner in this terrific contest is Helen Robertson, whose YA novel opening for ALABAMA JONES AND THE UNSPOILED QUEEN has great interiority, characterization, and, also, tension and mystery elements. Check it out — with notes — below.

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At least I didn’t have to wear a dress to my dad’s funeral.

I’m a sucker for opening lines and this is a great one. It tells me a lot about the character, her sense of humor, and, of course, the setting and the story.

He always told me to be grateful for the small things—especially when the big things looked bad. So I focused on the fact that I was wearing shorts, a tank top, my favorite necklace, and flip-flops. I tried to enjoy the feel of the boat beneath my feet, and reminded myself that I could add Alabama to my “been there” list. I’d just started the list this trip, because it was the first time I’d gone anywhere except to other islands in the Caribbean.

Here we get more of the setting and more of what’s important to this character. We also get a visceral detail with the movement of the boat and physical description of what she’s wearing.

Now I’d been to Georgia (the Atlanta airport, anyway), and Alabama. I was curious about Alabama because that’s my name, too. We’d never visited before because when we lived on Saba, everyone came to us. Still. I could think of better ways than my Dad’s funeral to be introduced to the place I was named after.

My interest is piqued with the “everyone came to us” comment… it makes me wonder about what her family does. We’ve got strong voice so far.

Not to mention that this was his second funeral. Dad had wanted to be cremated and scattered in two places: the waters above the Saba Bank, and Mobile Bay. So the first time was on Saba, and here we were, fulfilling part two of that wish. To me it meant just one thing: saying goodbye to my dad. Again.

And if we thought we were dealing with an ordinary family — and an ordinary funeral — this tosses those ideas on their ears.

Like on Saba, it was an informal service. People were in shorts and tee shirts, and they filled my granddad’s dive boat as we putt-putted out into the bay. My mom, her face stiff and tight, clutched the urn with the last of my dad’s ashes. I stood with my grandparents, holding my little sister’s hand. Asia (Dad liked to name us after places he loved) was ten. We never held hands anymore, but made an exception in this case.

Great interiority here, and the rest of the family starts to fill in. The sister, the mom, grandpa, whose boat they’re using… We also get more of Alabama’s humor. She’s using some slight wit here in the voice but it establishes tension because she’s been talking about pretty much everything EXCEPT her dad, and the hand-holding moment tells me that “this case” has hurt her maybe more than she lets on.

Even though I was sad, it was good to be on a boat again. The farther out into the bay we went, the closer I felt to my dad. We’d spent a lot of time on boats, usually going scuba diving. Being on the water felt right. I was also glad to be surrounded by people like my dad. Divers, sailors, and surfers, all sun-bleached hair, brown skin, and faded clothes. Water people. My dad’s people, and my people too.

A lovely tribute to her dad here, that characterizes her… and him.

Only one person didn’t match. It wasn’t just that he was dressed up—a few people were, after all. But the clothes he was wearing were long—long sleeves, long pants, and a fancy dark jacket. Instead of flip flops, he actually had shoes on, black ones that shone in the sun. Tall and thin, he walked like a stork: stiff and deliberate, lifting his feet high with every step. Plus he was pale. But his red hair was pretty, and he had freckles. I have freckles too, so people with freckles are all right by me.

There was some joking going around on Twitter last week about how every character in a book has quirky red hair and hates their freckles. This has a redhead with freckles, but it is far from the usual fare. Also, this is a character who actually likes freckles. I also like the description of this character and his “otherness.” I also love that she distinctly notices that he’s NOT wearing flip flops. As a California girl, I have to say that I don’t trust a person who misses an opportunity to don a nice pair of ‘flops…

I didn’t realize he was a clue. Back then, I didn’t even know there was a mystery.

The mystery hook pretty much guarantees that I’ll want to keep reading!

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I hope these winners continue to be helpful and interesting to you. This most recent winner is a great example of a literary YA novel (the quality of the writing, the bent toward interiority, the focus on family and realistic issues rather than paranormal or fantasy, the contemporary time frame) with an enticing (from the looks of it so far) mystery hook that looks like it might have a good balance of character-driven and plot-driven elements that’s so important in today’s market. I have three more to post — Second and First Place winners and the Grand Prize winner! — over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Honorable Mention, Novel Beginnings

We have our first announcement of a Kidlit Contest winner for this round. I know you all have been very excited to see what novel beginnings I’ve chosen, and I’m excited to share them with you. Once again, this contest features novel beginnings… those tricky but super important first few moments of your manuscript. All of these winners, in my opinion, do it right, and for that reason, I am featuring their entries in their entirety so that you can learn from them.

This doesn’t mean these winners are the only submissions of merit I received… far from it! But these do exemplify what I look for in a novel opening and all have a lot to teach writers.

The first winner is an Honorable Mention. The author’s name is Joan Stradling, for her paranormal YA, WOLFSBANE AT MIDNIGHT.

I’m posting her submission with notes from me below. The text is in italics and my notes are offset below each paragraph. I’m pointing out things that caught my eye about this submission so you get a sense for what I notice, why I notice it and how it works in the overall story.

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The cries from a flight of ravens echoed through the forest as they clamored to escape from the trees behind Scarlet. Fabric ripped as she jumped away from the tree and spun around. She scanned the edge of the clearing.

Great tension here. Good sound details and action. Instead of weather to set mood and convey tension, Joan is using the landscape. We get that something bad is happening without there having to be a storm.

The ragged figures of scarecrows danced in the fall breeze, but nothing else moved. Their waving arms must have startled the birds. Scarlet took a deep breath. The islanders’ stories of wolf attacks unnerved her, but being mauled by wolves wasn’t her only concern. Zev, the woodcutter, roamed the forest, and Scarlet wanted to avoid him too.

Lots of effortless worldbuilding here. We learn about a) the season (fall), b) the general setting (an island), c) a troubling problem in this world (wolf attacks), d) the story’s main antagonist so far (Zev, the woodcutter)… We also learn a little bit more about Scarlet, the protagonist. She’s scared in these woods and, for some reason, wants to avoid Zev. We also have the image of scarecrows to underscore the dramatic setting and tension established in the first paragraph.

He had threatened to cut off a few of her fingers if he caught her stealing from him again. As a result, she’d only taken small branches he left behind.

Until today.

GREAT tension! We learn a lot about Zev and Scarlet here. We learn that he’s ruthless (threatening to cut off fingers) but we also learn that she’s a bit of a troublemaker (“if he caught her stealing from him again,” emphasis mine). We get a sense that she’s been toeing the line and trying not to get into too much trouble… but something has happened today, on the day the manuscript starts, to change all that. We call this the “inciting incident” and I can’t wait to learn just what has made this day, in this creepy wood, different.

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This is a shorter entry, but I hope you can see just what kind of impact 132 words can have. Check back on Wednesday to read the Third Place winner’s entry!

Contest Update

Hey all! Due to the overwhelming response to the contest, I’ve been a bit snowed under in terms of narrowing down entries and picking winners. However, I have it down to a small group of great entries right now. I will post the first winner of the contest, the Honorable Mention, on Monday, March 1st. I will then post the 3rd Place Winner on Wednesday, March 3rd, the 2nd Place Winner on Friday, March 5th, the First Place Winner on Monday, March 8th and the Grand Prize Winner on Wednesday, March 10th!

Thank you for your patience and I think this is going to be a great round of winners. Stay tuned…

Just a Thought…

The old cliche is that, when two people have nothing better to talk about or they’re too awkward to talk about something real, they talk about the weather. Why do so many manuscripts, then, start with… descriptions of the weather?

I should hope that, if you’ve decided to write an entire manuscript, you’ve got better things to talk about than the weather and you’re not feeling too awkward to say them.

Think about it. (Yes, I am reading contest submissions right now. Yes, every other entry for the last 50 or so has mentioned some kind of weather in the first paragraph. No, I am not automatically dismissing these entries, though the author is putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage. No, this isn’t unusual compared to the slush I usually get. No, you probably shouldn’t start a manuscript like this.)

Happy New Year! And… Contest!

Hey readers, Happy New Year! May 2010 bring you closer to your writing dreams and be filled with joy, prosperity, craft and laughter for you and your loved ones.

I’m ducking in quickly to dispense good wishes and also to reveal my new contest for January! Since the new year is all about new beginnings… this contest is, too. This round, I’m accepting entries for the beginnings (up to the first 500 words) of your MG or YA novels (sorry, no picture books this time around). Then I’ll dissect what makes a strong novel opening — one of the most difficult and crucial moments in your manuscript.

Head on over to the Kidlit Contest page to find out more!