Grand Prize Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest!

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!

55 Replies to “Grand Prize Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest!”

  1. This entry is the well-deserved winner! Congratulations! Well done.

  2. Wow, that is a compelling beginning.
    Congrats Mary D. and thanks to Mary K. and all the winners-these posts have been fun and informative.

  3. Thanks for creating the contest and sharing your comments about each winner. I posted reminders about it on the SCBWI Carolinas listserv each day a new winner was announced. We have “First Pages” at the Carolinas Fall Conference, and the editors try to do as many as they can in an hour. It’s enlightening but goes by so fast it’s difficult to take it all in. It’s great to be able to hear your comments and have time to think about them, too.

  4. Don Cummer says:

    Great opening, Mary. Hope to read the rest of is some day.

    And Mary K, I think all of us have learned so much with this contest. Hope you’ll do something similar again soon.

  5. Wow, she had me from the first line. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. I hope you’ll keep us posted!

  6. Congrats, Mary! I’ve read this before in a SA contest, and thought it was great then, too. Yay!

  7. Gail Goetz says:

    Both Mary’s, thank you. There’s so much packed into this beginning, I want to read more. I love the expressive, appealing voice, the set up of the mystery, the wording, just everything. Congratulations!

  8. Diana Murray says:

    This entry is awesome.

    Congratulations to all the winners!!!

  9. Awesome entry – I would definitely read this book! Thanks Mary for a great contest! 🙂

  10. I really liked this entry, for all the above reasons, plus, it has the flavor of the opening narrative of a classic 40’s noir mystery movie.
    I learned a lot from this contest. Thanks!

  11. Mary Beth says:

    Thanks Mary Kole! Will you be contacting non-winners to submit more material if you’re interested, or should we query you?

  12. Shari Maser says:

    Fabulous, Mary! You deserved to win, and I hope you get published SOON so I can read the rest of The Sherwood Confessions. I have a feeling it will be an all-in-one-sitting-even–if-I-have-to-stay-up-all-night read. 🙂

  13. Very nicely done… and thanks, Mary, for running the contest and devoting your time and effort.

  14. a male writer says:

    Noticing that a contest held by a female has only female winners who wrote female point of view stories. Am I wrong, or was just a contest for woman writers?

  15. Congrats Mary!!!!!! This is fabulous. With all the interest you’ve had lately, I expect you’ll see an offer soon. So exciting. Good luck!

  16. Male Writer — As I mentioned, the first round of judging in the contest is blind. Now that I’m looking back at the entries, the vast majority of them came from female writers. Children’s books are weighed a bit more heavily to female writers and female characters and female editors, though I’m making no value judgment about this.

    In fact, I’d love to see more good books by amazing male writers about male characters in my slush, as I think that more kid and teen boys could be compelled to read more than they, statistically, do. If I’m to be totally honest — and I almost don’t want to get into this and continue making an issue where there really isn’t one — I love seeing compelling fiction from male writers in my inbox and sometimes actually give it special consideration and effort because a lot of editors want stories from the male POV, and some of my favorite books to read are “boy books.” So, if anything, my judgment bias leans toward male writers because they’re more rare in kidlit.

    For this contest, I was considering only the quality of the writing, and namely the quality of how the entry functioned as a beginning for a novel, not the gender of the author, though. Thanks for pointing out an inequality that I hope to explore in the future.

  17. Mary, congrats on a great beginning and winning this contest. It grabbed me immediately.
    Thanks again, Mary, for the opportunity to send our work out into the world.

  18. a male writer says:

    Thank you for such a prompt response. Looking back at my comment, I hope it was not taken as spite. This is one of my favorite sites for all you do for the aspiring writer. I love ALL the entries you have chosen. I was more curios as to if gender was an issue for you as an agent.
    Again, congrats to All entries. This was a learning experience in the most positive of ways.

  19. Mary — thanks for the contest. Very good stuff here, and some very talented writers.

    Will you reveal any stats about the “also-rans” — the 25 finalists? It’d be interesting to see what else caught your eye. Not details per se, just YA/MG, boy/girl protag, contemporary/literary, etc?

  20. A worthy winner and a really good learning experience. Congratulations and thanks! I would read all the stories here.

    It’s another first person story, which makes all the winners first person bar one. Any reason?

  21. Male Writer — No spite, I just want to make sure my readers (as readers and as writers) have a positive experience on the site. As Henryp points out in another comment, all the winners were first person. And you pointed out they were all female protagonists (and writers)… I honestly had no idea. I just picked the best and most engaging — to me, mind you — writing without even thinking about the other details!

    KC — I can try and put some stats together but, to be honest, that might be at the bottom of my sprawling To Do list at the moment.

    Henryp — As I said above, I didn’t even notice. I think there could be one explanation… It’s easier to feel “close” to a character and more involved in their experience with the first person, and I was looking for beginnings that really grabbed me and hooked me in. I think it’s easier to do this with the first person, right off the bat, so that’s what I ended up subconsciously gravitating toward, once again, keeping the “novel beginnings” theme in mind.

  22. Wow. I want to read this.

  23. Crikey, Mary. That was quick! Thanks for the answer. That’s what I guessed… in first person you can let the reader in a bit quicker. Of course, it’s harder for the rest of the novel, but this was about openings!

    I’m really going to look at openings in a new light. It’s the ‘first page read’ in the bookshop… gotta get the page turning.

    I’d love to see your comments on one or more of the ‘non-winners’. It’d be interesting to learn where you thought people could do better.

  24. Henryp — That WOULD be interesting but I’m not exactly sure people will appreciate their writing being publicly posted as “in need of improvement.” That could get ugly quick.

    Maybe I will openly ask people who feel their beginnings need help to submit a) their beginning, b) what they’re struggling with and then I can dissect those… with the writer’s permission.

    I’d hate to just pick samples that need work, though, because I don’t want to be judging a person’s submission unless I have their explicit permission.

  25. Ooh, I like that idea — I’d love to submit something for dissection.

  26. Michael Gettel-Gilmartin says:

    Thank you, Mary, for holding this contest on your blog. The quality of all the finalists was high and I enjoyed seeing what worked. Good luck to all the featured writers in the future submission of their work.

  27. Bongo — I hope you actually know J.R., or s/he might have to kick your butt.

    Also, that is a fair point… we just assumed that J.R. was a woman because they wrote in first person female POV. How sexist are we?!

  28. Um, wow, thanks so much for the congratulations, everyone! And thanks again, Mary, for running this contest. It was such a great opportunity for all of us kidlitters. Just from the other four entries, I learned a ton about great beginnings. There are some amazing writers out there, for sure!

  29. Congratulations to all the winners! I want to line these books up and read them all one by one! This one is especially intriguing, a wonderful pick for grand prize. Congratulations, Mary!

  30. aj finnegan says:

    Congrats to Mary Danielson – what a spectacular hook!! I would absolutely keep reading after such a compelling beginning 🙂

    Mary K – what a great contest! I’m sure all of us learned something. I’ve gone back and forth a lot about whether to write in first or third person, but I agree with you . . . first is a lot quicker to draw readers in.

    Thanks for all the time you’ve put into this!

  31. Shannon B says:

    Mary, what a fun contest! Thanks soooo much for doing contests, although I wasn’t a winner you sure picked some wonderful entries we can learn from.
    I love your blog 🙂

  32. I’m amazed at your ability to parse out the winners into the different levels of reward. Each time I read the winning contestant of the day, I was so impressed, it was hard to see how the next person could top it. They were all great and this was a tremendous learning experience. Thanks for the time you put into this.

  33. June — That’s one of the most difficult parts, actually and, this time around, the second place winner inspired some arguments, so it’s not an exact science. It’s definitely a nerve wracking process.

    All — Thank you so much for the kind words about the winners and the contest. I’m so glad that this was useful and fun for you!

  34. Helen Robertson says:

    Great beginning, Mary D.!! I have a weakness for criminal masterminds and would love to read more about this one.

    Mary K.–thanks again for the great contest.

  35. melodycolleen says:

    Congratulations, Mary, on a fantastic beginning. If the entire ms. is so amazing, I’m wondering why I can’t find it on the bookstore shelf yet! Really, it was a fun and enjoyable read.

    mary k. – this has been a wonderful opportunity to learn, and your feedback and perspective are inspiring. Thanks so much for giving us all the valuable comments – it’s very helpful to have opportunities like this.

    Awesome site.

  36. A great first page! Thanks for sharing, and for the analysis comments. I think this is bound to be a great book.

    Also, Mary, I wanted to let you know that I’ve given you the One Lovely Blog award. Thanks for keeping us so well informed.

  37. Elaine Long says:

    Wow! When is this going to be published?? Great work Mary (D)! This was a great contest and I feel I have learned so much from reading what all of the winners wrote and Mary’s comments. I have a new understanding of what it takes to get the attention of the reader and am inspired to start all over again! Thank you Mary (K) for helping me see what I didn’t before in my work. : )

  38. Bongo — Running a contest is a very difficult thing, especially with only 500 words to work with. It is a bit artificial since I have to operate within the parameters of the contest and of what I’m trying to achieve with it, so the winners are certainly great writers but, if I were judging this for representation, I would always want to see more of a sample from them because, you’re right, there is very little I can really tell about a novel-length work from less than 500 words.

    Whether it is a teaser opening or a scene-based opening, I think these winners all provide a voice and the beginning of a story that compels the reader to read on, and that is the common element.

  39. Erica Olson says:

    Mary, I’d be happy to have you dissect my entry if anyone would like to see it. I have no pride 😉
    Erica Olson

  40. Sheila Michel says:

    This is good, but I prefer the first place winner’s piece. Just personal taste I guess.

  41. Mary,

    I awarded you a One Lovely Blog Award too (I know Samantha did too, but couldn’t resist because your blog is great!)

  42. Stellar pics, Mary! I hope all these manuscripts find a home. I want to know what happens in each and every one!

  43. This is a great character. Congrats to all the winners!

    Laughing about the male writer thing.

  44. Just wanted to add a note of caution here. Mary’s opinion is just that, “HER” opinion. What one likes in a story is subjective.

  45. Pulled this from the WN site: They certainly have a point.

    But just because Mary likes a story doesn’t mean that other agents and publishers would agree. She’s expressing her “personal” opinion, only. It is not carved in stone. BTW, what kind of credentials does Mary have? I know you don’t need any to hang your shingle out as an agent, but does she have a degree in English lit? Hey when you’re pontificating like this, as if you were the cat’s pyjamas, you better have something to back it up.

  46. Eva — Everything in publishing is subjective, of course. Every person who works in this business has their own opinion in regards to what they’re representing, buying, publishing… Every person who walks into a bookstore has their own opinion about what they will buy… Every reader has their own opinions as to what they like or don’t about a book in their hands.

    I don’t think I ever claimed, ONCE, anywhere on this website or on other websites, that my opinions are the end all and be all. If you have some time to waste, I invite you to check.

    As for the other comment you posted, it IS very easy for any person to hang a shingle out as an agent. It’s a bit harder — infinitely harder — to get brought on board as an agent, not as an intern or reader, at a reputable agency. If you check my bio on the Andrea Brown Literary Agency website, you might learn that I not only have a degree in English but am earning my MFA in creative writing. Not only have I worked for Chronicle Books, a publisher, in their children’s editorial department, but now I work for ABLit, a nine-person literary agency representing children’s books for 28 years. We’ve been #1 in terms of juvenile sales, according to Publishers Marketplace, an industry deal reporting service, for the last three years. If you check Publishers Marketplace, also, you’ll see my reported deals from books I’ve sold.

    While I’m relatively new to this business (two years), I was hired to do this and am surrounded by people who aren’t. I know some people want to “out” agents who aren’t reputable or who don’t have a background in book publishing or, more specifically, children’s books, and that’s very valuable for writers, who may not know the difference. With me, though, these efforts are appreciated but unnecessary.

  47. I guess I just dislike middle men, on principle, nothing personal. I’ve always done very well without agents. Some writers actually believe you can’t get decently published without one. Not so.

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