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Contest

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Today is the official publication day for the 2012 edition of the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, out from Writer’s Digest Books and edited by Chuck Sambuchino.

Inside this handy volume, you will find articles on craft, writing, submitting, and landing an agent, interviews with kidlit glitterati like M.T. Anderson and Meg Cabot, and updated listings for agents, publishers, and magazines that take work from children’s writers and illustrators. If you want to land an agent or find a market for your work this year, this is the book for you.

I highly recommend it. In fact, you will see a familiar face featured on the back cover, and an official blurb from me that reads:

Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market is the most complete, trusted, definitive, and inspiring source of publishing opportunities for children’s writers and illustrators working today.

It’s true. Not only did I lend my mug and stamp of approval to the book, but I have two articles featured inside. One is about writer’s conferences and how to make the best of your investment in them (whether it’s your first or your fiftieth), and the other covers my three favorite craft issues: Voice, Character, and Authority, with lots of juicy annotated examples from my favorite MG and YA books on shelves.

So if you want to read about and see examples of Voice that works — an especially tricky topic that lots of writers struggle with — pick up a copy today! This elegant guide is crammed full of useful information and updated agency, publisher, and magazine listings to make your quest toward publication a no-brainer. Let 2012 be the year you really MARKET your writing!

Because I’m so proud of this year’s book, I am giving away one free copy of the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET to a writer randomly selected from the comments. Leave a comment below (make sure to include your email address in the comment form, though know that only I will be able to see it and it won’t be published on the site). Deadline for entries is midnight, Tuesday, September 20th. The winner will be announced in Wednesday the 21st’s blog, and then I will ship your copy to you next week. (US residents only, please.)

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Thank you all so much for your patience as I break down some first lines from the comments and critique exercise we did the other day. Whew! Almost 200 comments and entries, from PB first lines to YA fantasy and everything in between. Here is a selection of my favorite ones, with comments from me, and then a crowning of the winners. That’s right! This contest has two winning first lines.

First, though, the Honorable Mentions:

So let’s go through them in the order they were posted. First up is Crystal:

I never got the Bloodlust.

Some of my favorite first lines are the ones that plant the kernel of a question in a reader’s head. Here, there’s the question raised of “What is the Bloodlust?” but also some implied tension. Whoever this character is, I’m betting s/he either will get the Bloodlust soon or is one of the very few who never got this mysterious Bloodlust, which makes her an outcast, and there’s conflict in that. So we raise a juicy question and also imply that something is going to be fraught about this Bloodlust situation.

Here’s Silvia:

When Misha started seeing holes in people, she told her mother.

I’m not sure I’m crazy about this as a first line, because it’s telling (I’d rather see this instance in scene) and because of the use of the dry, more old-fashioned word “mother,” but the shock value of it can’t be denied, as you can see from the comments. The image certainly is arresting, and it starts with punch. You don’t want to make these kinds of “stunt” first lines a habit, but this one works because I want to read more.

Here’s Lyla:

On the night that Gabriel Durante harvested his one hundredth soul, he bought himself a pack of cigarettes and a drink.

This line cracks me up in a bit of a dark way. There’s a lot going on — this is our longest chosen line — but it’s very specific. There’s clearly something important about the one hundredth soul. There’s a reward for Gabriel here, or a release, but it’s a self-destructive one, hence the dark appeal. I immediately want to know what the one hundredth soul means and what’s waiting for Gabriel after…and that’s the perfect introduction to a book that, I assume, is going to be about just that. This feels like just the right first line for what I can imagine this story will be about. If the story is not about what happens after the one hundredth soul, this writer isn’t setting expectations correctly!

Here’s Stephanie:

People used to smile at me a lot more than they do now.

There’s some good first person pain in this line, which speaks to good voice. And not only do I want to know what happened to make them stop smiling as much, I want to know what it was like before and what it’s like now. Lots of good questions in this line. (Are we seeing a common theme?)

Here’s Amy:

Everything Sophie drew came to life.

This, just like the hole-people line, caught my eye because it’s a unique premise. Again, though, it does suffer from a bit of the telling. It’s a rather dry way of expressing your premise…showing this magic in action would be a much more active choice. You can, of course, use telling to reinforce key ideas occasionally (see good telling vs. bad telling) but I wouldn’t recommend as the first line. Still, I would keep reading this.

Here’s Kayla:

Siven smiles at me as she tightens her fingers around my neck.

This is a great example of starting in medias res (“in the middle of things” in Greek). We jump right into the action. There’s also the great tension of the smile as it clashes against the violent act of the fingers around the neck. This first line has lots of punch (bad pun fully intended)!

Here’s Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Here’s Kait:

I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.

This is another one of those telling lines, but there is a haunting tone to it that hints at good voice down the road. The question is so big and so ache-inducing that it begs the reader to keep going. An emotional connection in a first line is important.

Here’s Ashley:

“What do you want your name to be this time?”

Normally I tell writers to not start their novels with unattributed lines of dialogue. It’s too disorienting right off the bat. This line is a good one, though! It sparks a lot, a lot of questions! If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s something electric like this, and not, say, “Did you finish your cereal?” or whatever.

Finally, for the Honorable Mentions, Miles:

Camilla Bradford counted to ten, then walked out into the street.

There’s tension involved in counting to ten — she’s either doing it in anticipation of something or in anger, as a way to quiet her reaction. By setting up the suspense in this one line, Miles makes us want to keep reading. That’s good, because this project is apparently a YA thriller!

And now, The Winners:

Here’s the unveiling of our first one, Kathryn:

Bea had broken at least six of the Ten Commandments.

The voice here is great! Plus, I want to know more about this character. There’s tension in the breaking of the Commandments…clearly the Commandments matter to the character, because she references them, but not enough to keep from breaking them. This line is tongue-in-cheek and voice-y, also. Overall, just very appealing. The obvious question is, of course: Which Commandments, and how?

And here’s our second winner, Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Kathryn and Kalen both get a critique of their first 250 words (email me, winners, at mary at kidlit dot com with the subject line: First Line Critique). Thanks for playing along, everyone!

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As many of you know, I did the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in Utah last summer and had an absolutely amazing time. I’m back at it again this June, with an amazing faculty that includes Holly Black, Allie Condie, Kathleen Duey, Kevin Hawkes, Mike Knudson, and many more!

To spread the word about the conference, the organizers are having a first line writing contest for picture books, chapter books, MG or YA novels. That’s right…see if your killer first line stands up to the judges! One of the prizes is a query critique from me. The deadline is April 2nd. Check the contest out here, especially if you live in Utah and are planning or thinking about going to WIFYR! It’s one of my favorite conferences and I highly, highly recommend it.

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The Novel Beginnings contest is officially over and now you’ve had a chance to see the winning entries. This is what writers have done right. That’s not to say that every great submission I received placed in the top five — there were lots of submissions that I enjoyed and that had compelling beginnings — but these offered up a skillful and interesting, I hope, selection of what was sent my way.

I want to use this opportunity to debrief a little bit and talk more about novel beginnings, lessons learned from the contest, and what I could possibly do with the rest of the month on this blog, if you all are game.

In my line of work, where submissions are always streaming into my inbox like water from a faucet that doesn’t turn off, I see a lot of beginnings. In most cases, the beginning is ALL I see. Sad, but true. After reading thousands and thousands of queries, you really do start to notice the quality of the writing immediately. At a glance, I can usually tell how far along a writer is in their learning journey, how many books they read in the same genre and for the same audience that they’re targeting, how much attention they’ve given to revisions and how “ready for prime time” they are. It’s an unfair system that so much of my judgment of their work is based on the first 10 pages — or sometimes opening paragraph, if I start to notice writing problems right away — but such is life. I do not have time to stick with a book whose flawed beginning may someday yield “the really good stuff that comes near the middle.” I’d like to have unending faith in everything that comes across my desk — that the writing will get better, that the voice will become more natural, that it will find a plot — but I just can’t.

A lot of agenting is deciding which projects and which clients are worth taking a risk on and worth the time investment. Some gambles pay off, others don’t. Each project I work on is a chance that I’m taking and a labor of love, because I may spend weeks and weeks on revisions for something and it might never sell. But if I see promise and if I fall in love with it, it’s worth trying. Taking a gamble on a submission with a weak beginning, however, almost never pays off, so I don’t do it. If something fails to grab me from the first paragraph, I will, most likely, stop reading and move on. How’s THAT for depressing? How’s THAT for the opposite of what you want to hear about a book that you’ve spent moths or years of your life writing?

So nailing a perfect beginning, while somewhat artificial, is a very specific skill. And I want to help people do this well. Of course, once you nail the beginning, you also have to nail the rest of the book. If you don’t, you’ll have what I call Conference Polish Syndrome. Since conferences pay close attention to the first 10-15 pages, writers who have been workshopped a lot usually have a really strong sample… but fall apart on pages 11-20. I’ve written about beginnings before. You can check out my other post about novel beginnings from Revision-o-Rama this past December.

However, there’s nothing like seeing beginnings in action. With the contest, I hope I provided some good beginnings — ones that would catch me — and talked about what makes them work well. Now, Wednesday’s comments gave me another idea, and I wanted to run it by everyone. What about posting some beginnings that… need a little help?

I don’t want to pick from the contest submissions because that would involve me judging someone’s work publicly when they didn’t explicitly sign up to be judged. But I do agree that comments on solid, good work can only go so far. You can learn a lot from reading stuff that doesn’t work — and, more importantly, why it doesn’t work — as well.

First, I need to know if, a) there’s any interest in this and b) if anyone will step up and volunteer their beginning to be workshopped. The point here, again, is to identify what doesn’t work and why, not to judge or ridicule. That’s why, if you want to participate with a piece of your own writing, send me up to 250 words of your novel beginning and ALSO send me a short few sentences about the major problem you’re having or the major thing you’re wondering about (is: Is this too slow? Does this dialogue work? Is this too vague? Is the characterization coming across? Is this too much description? etc.) to mary at kidlit dot com. Put “Workshop” in the subject line. If you’ve already sent me something, inspired by Wednesday’s comments, please resend with these guidelines.

Let’s see if I get any submissions. If I do, the writers must understand that I will post the piece of writing and then provide my comments. Some of these comments will be constructive criticism. I will never judge outright, but I will try and pick out some “teaching moments” in the piece so that both the writer and other blog readers can learn from them.

Does this sound good? Interesting? I’ll take submissions for this until Sunday, March 14th at 11:59 p.m., Pacific. This is not a contest. I’m not awarding prizes. I just want to get some new material in from authors who are agreeing to be workshopped on the blog and who have no problem with some constructive feedback.

Doing the kind of work we’re talking about here is, as you can imagine, very time-consuming for me. I don’t want to venture down this path without first knowing that it’ll be useful to you. Also, to touch on another issue that occurred in Wednesday’s comments, if any male writers want to send me stuff, please do. I agree — it’s time to feature some male writers or male POVs here!

Finally, people have asked whether or not they can query me with the same project that they submitted for the contest. At this point, I will have to respectfully decline to see the same project. Since this entry involved a writing sample, I feel like a query with that same writing sample would be a bit redundant. If you end up revising the project you’re working on (and six months pass) or if you have a new project, feel free to query, but if you don’t hear from me about your entry within the next few weeks, do refrain from querying with it.

Edited to add: Yes, you can send in the same entry that you did for the contest.

Also, since I don’t necessarily want to be doing this for the rest of my natural life, I was originally thinking of posting one beginning a day through March 31st, the end of the month. That gives me 8 slots. If I get more than 8 entries, I will pick and choose the ones about which I have the most to say and which will be the most help to others. Either way, it is probably in your best interest to get your beginning to me ASAP, in case I receive an avalanche of entries.

Edited to add 2.0: I did mean March 14th, fixed now.

Submissions are pouring in. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that. I’m capping this exercise at eight entries selected for workshop, so that means, unfortunately, not everyone who enters will get workshopped. This was not meant to be an offer for a personal critique by me for every entry. I will only critique the 8 entires that will go up on the blog.

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As promised, today is the big reveal of the Grand Prize winner for the Kidlit Novel Beginnings Contest! Without further ado, I present an entry by Mary Danielson, a (light) paranormal/mystery YA called THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. This entry embodies the voice, tension, and intrigue that I like to see at the beginning of a novel. While we haven’t gotten a scene yet — which I’ve always said is very important at the beginning of a novel — I think that one is coming, just by the set-up. Find out why this book sounds compelling enough to read “from beginning to end.”

The funny thing about Mary Danielson, today’s winner, is that she actually entered the contest twice. For my initial judging, I like to keep entries anonymous. Lots of my frequent readers — whose names I recognize from comments and the like — enter the contests, so I don’t want to be biased when reading their entries. Either way, I whittle down the entries to about the top 25 or so without looking at names. Then I start to really analyze the top choices. And, by some incredible stroke of either luck or genius, two entries from this selection of the top 25 (out of more than 400!) belonged to Mary Danielson! And both entries were so good that it was difficult to choose just one to place among the winners that I’ve posted here.

Read on to find out what caught my eye… twice!

***

Five weeks before his disappearance, Miles St. John pushed me up against a locker and kissed me. Hard.

I really enjoy the voice here. And we have a disappearance already in play. There’s a lot of action in this sentence, and that “Hard,” for emphasis, is a nice touch.

This didn’t exactly make it into the police report. A lot of things didn’t. Not that night, not our plan, and especially not this little fact: I could have saved him.

Lots and lots of mystery! And the danger element of lying to the police. And the high stakes idea of her being able to save him. There’s immediate tension!

Even the reporters, who descended on Verity with their news vans and power ties, didn’t discover our secret. They badgered witnesses and dug up rumors, but still not a single tabloid mentioned my name.

And this character has managed to fly under the radar. I want to know a whole lot more about that.

In a few hours, I could be away from it all. Suitcases and secrets in hand, I could get on that plane to Texas and never be caught. Those stories would stand and you people could go on guessing and wondering, your theories swirling around and around until pretty soon everyone loses interest. It would be yesterday’s headline.

It would all be a lie.

Now she’s running from it, “suitcases and secrets in hand.” But will she get away with it? Will it be a clean severing of ties? And what will the emotional ramifications of all this secrecy be? I’m already so invested in this character’s story and I’ve only read a few sentences.

And if there’s anything my time at Verity Prep taught me, it’s this: a lie, even one that no one suspects, will do more bad than good every time. So, this isn’t going to be like before. I’m telling the truth now.

Lots and lots of tension again. My question from my last comment — about the ramifications of her lie — still stand here. I find that when the reader thinks something, and then the author mentions it and picks up on it, that’s a really well-written manuscript. I was just thinking about how the lie would impact her, and then it turns out Mary has thought about it too, and mentioned it right as it bubbled up in my brain. There’s the risk here, also, of this character finally telling the truth. I’m guessing this is the “confessions” part of THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. What does this have to do with her impending escape? There’s also tension with the mention of “before” that piques my interest, and I want to know more about Verity Prep, where they’re apparently teaching whole lessons on lies and scandal instead of calculus and chemistry.

Not just about Miles, but about everything – the robberies, the fire, the curse.

And there’s a CURSE! *swoon* I want to know about all these things, but especially the curse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Uncle Dash says that the best quality in a good journalist is that she gives all the facts – from the very beginning, when things first get fishy, all the way until the villain’s confession.

I also like that she’s a journalist. If I hadn’t know this, I would still have noticed the way she talks about reporters and the news, abov,e and guessed that it was one of her interests. It’s cool to see a character’s narrative through the lens of their passion, and her interest in journalism is clear even before she says it outright. Good voice here, too.

So, here it is – from my beginning to his end — the confessions of Evie Archer: amateur sleuth, freak of nature, and criminal mastermind.

Great button for this excerpt. I want to know about all three of these roles that she’s taken on for herself.

***

So there you have it, folks! Congratulations to all the winners and the entrants… it takes a lot of guts to share your writing and put it out there into the world. I’ll do a bit of a “deconstruction” post for this contest on Friday, with some of my lingering thoughts on novel beginnings. Thank you all for playing along with this great exercise!

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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.

***

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 lamé 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?

***

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’!

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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!

***

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!

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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!

***

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!

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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!

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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…

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