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.


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.


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’!

38 Replies to “First Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest”

  1. Cassandra says:

    Wow, loved this story! I want to keep reading, which obviously means it’s well-written. Hope to see this published someday! 🙂

    Great job, Anita!

  2. Very compelling! Congratulations, I really enjoyed reading that, and would love to read on.

    Three out of the four winners so far are written in first person with quirky characters and a ‘confessional’ style. (Albeit all very different!) Is this just a coincidence, or a current trend? I’ve found it hard to tell a long form story in first person.

  3. Love the skeleton in gold lame singing in front of the Cinnabon. Nice work, Anita. Good choice, Mary.

  4. Melissa Gill says:

    What a great story idea. This sounds charming and fresh.

  5. Oh I want to read this! I hope someday you’ll be sharing the news of its publication so I can go pick it up; the character and the setup sound irresistible.

  6. As a huge fan of Elvis Presley, I LOVE this! Can not wait to read it some day! Congrats!

  7. Gail Goetz says:

    If I didn’t know better I would think Anita is thirteen. However, the skillful writing here belies that. Clever ideas abound, also great touches of kid life — text messaging, hiding from the popular kids, shame over a member of the family. Congratulations. This is a gem. Mary, thank you for giving us this contest. Your choices and comments have opened my eyes.

  8. Helen Robertson says:

    I was smiling the whole time I read this–I really like the entire premise, and the Elvis impersonation angle has such great potential for humor! I’m curious to find out what it’s going to take for her to appreciate her father’s avocation.

  9. Cute, cute, cute. This is a different storyline and has me interested, well more than interested…dare I say it…it has me All Shook Up. I couldn’t resist. I agree, this is a keeper and a winner. Congratulations Anita!

  10. Great job of creating a realistic sympathetic character in a short space of time — who can’t relate to a crazy parent? Nicely done.

  11. Okay, this was absolutely adorable! I love Ellie already. The conflict here is already so realistic, as well – what 13 year-old isn’t embarrassed by their parents, even they aren’t Elvis impersonators? I already know quite a few young readers who would love this.

    Congratulations, Anita!

  12. I loved this. Great details, great voice.

    I have a question for Mary or any other commenter: I know some agents specifically dislike name-brand mentions in novels (see Daphne Unfeasible- Kate Schaffer-Testerman’s blog). Is it a big deal to name brands?

    Great opening here… Thanks for hosting this, Mary!

  13. Funny and engaging. Great job, Anita. Kudos.

  14. Great Job Anita. Mary’s right this is different (an Elvis story) and I love it taking place in Pennsylvania instead of Vegas. I’m in Reno and see Elvis all the time. I would pick this up for my kiddos just for that reason, we’d have a great laugh!

  15. Very funny! And skillful. Thanks for pointing the skill out, Mary. When its done this well, one can just read right through it without realizing how crafty the writer is being. Great work Anita.

    I had one little issue and maybe it’s only me. It went from adopted to Piercing Pagoda and I had to pause and say what? before I realized the former thoughts were happening at a mall. Is that just me being clueless and middle aged?

  16. Wow, all of the winner’s first pages make me want to read their books. I’m looking forward to seeing the Grand Prize winner.

  17. Shari Maser says:

    Hilarious, Anita! This is another novel beginning that would definitely hook my 13-year-old daughter. The my-dad-is-embarrassing theme is universally appealing, and connecting the story to pop culture makes it feel hip and modern (even though Elvis is yesterday’s news). BTW — I love how you made the narrator’s name appropriately mortifying.

  18. Ha Ha! Thanks, Shari. I just got the name thing…

  19. Congrats Anita! This is so much fun. I want to read more.

  20. Great first page! I love the Elvis as dad idea.

    Well done, Anita.

    And thanks for the comments, Mary. Very informative.

  21. Every entry has been so great. Congrats to all the winners, Anita and down!

  22. melodycolleen says:

    congratulations, Anita. This one cracked me up, from the title on. How fun!

  23. Don Cummer says:

    Congrats, Anita. Well done. I especially like the way you put the opening scene in the mall — the combination of Elvis and shopping malls creates a nice little world.

    Good luck with your 10-page read. I hope we’ll hear more about this.

  24. aj finnegan says:

    Loved it! All of the contest winners have been GREAT – and all so different.

  25. Congrats Anita,

    A great beginning, hoping to read the book!

  26. Girls with a wry sense of humor are, for my money, the most fun POV character to write from. I love this one!

    Rachel Heston Davis
    Up and Writing

  27. Pamela Ross says:

    Congratulations. Well-deserved. This is a great opener. I am …
    ALL HOOK-ed UP.


  28. This is great stuff. I like this the best so far, but of course all the winners have great stuff! Wonderfully written and I will buy it when it comes out!

  29. Diana Murray says:

    Hilarious! Very visual. I can already see the movie based on this.

  30. Thank you so much for posting your comments on the blog. It allows even those who didn’t win to benefit from the critiques. =)


  31. Yep, that’s great all right, and I’d definitely keep on reading. Cringe-worthy parents are always fun.

    Your analysis of this was also very helpful, so thank you.

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