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.


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.


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!

46 Replies to “Honorable Mention, Novel Beginnings”

  1. Great opening–ravens, fabric ripping, evil finger-cutter…yikes. Congrats, Joan!

  2. Eliza Osborn says:

    Yay, Joan! I’m so glad she’s in this! *little dance*

  3. Hey Joan! I remember reading Wolfsbane at Authoress’ site.
    Don’t remember if it was a first page or a drop the needle- only know that it stuck with me. And this opening makes sure its going to stay with me.
    Love it!

  4. Wow…great beginning. It’s a great representation of the effect of not only conservation of words, but including the RIGHT words. Really good job building a world in the reader’s mind without being to “telly” or too purple. Great job, Joan!

  5. Joan,

    Congratulations! Your beginning drew me in from the get go! I definitely want to know more about all the characters.

  6. Wow, if this is an honorable mention, then I can’t wait to read the winner. Great job, Joan! And thanks, Mary, for the analysis.

  7. Congrats, Joan.

    I’m a first page reader and I would definitely carry this book to the cash register. My daughter and I love reading these kinds of stories together.

    Great tension, great setting and great hook. I’m sold!

  8. WOW. I was hooked, too — loved the sensory details and, as you’d mentioned, the effortless world building, too. Congratulations, Joan!

  9. Great job, Joan!

    You really did a fantastic job of setting the mood and place with few words – I would definitely keep reading to see where Scarlett’s going.

    Thanks again, for the contest and all the work, Mary. I’ve been looking forward to reading the winners since the contest was first announced and this one didn’t disappoint. 🙂

  10. Don Cummer says:

    Yup. Makes me want to know what happens next — and what’s happened in the past. I would read on.

  11. melodycolleen says:

    This is an awesome opening, IMO. Love the personality you so effortlessly (seemingly) show for Scarlet. I like her already. And Zev, I definitely don’t like. He’s a brute.

    Really fun read. Thanks, and congratulations on a job well done.

  12. Julie Angeli says:

    Congratulations Joan! I wish I could read more!

  13. Congrats, Joan.
    This opening pulls you in. I have learned so much just in the process of submitting the first 500 words. I cannot wait to read all the winners.

  14. Michael Gettel-Gilmartin says:

    I agree. This was a compelling beginning. I can’t wait to read the rest of the winners! Special stuff.

  15. Congratulations, Joan! Wow, you really do show what can be done with just 132 words – that was so skillful. I’m another first page reader here and I would eagerly buy this, after such a great opening.

  16. Yay! I’m so glad my opening worked, and that I received the honorable mention. Thanks for all the great feedback! It made my day. I can’t wait to see the other winners.

  17. Great opening! Learned a ton from your comments too, Mary! Thanks for doing this… I have a feeling I’m going to learn an invaluable amount from these entry winners!

  18. Congrats to Joan!

    I love that the inciting incident comes right away. Those are always my favorite reads, of course.

  19. Elaine Long says:

    Nice work Joan! Congratulations!

  20. Great work, Joan! Gives the rest of us something to aspire to!

  21. That works!
    This is going to be so useful, thanks.

  22. Natalie Aguirre says:

    Congrats Joan. And Mary, your notes are really helpful as to everything that’s shown in just a few words. Thanks.

  23. Wow! And this is only honorable mention? Can’t wait to read the other winners. Just goes to show how really good you’ve got to be to break into publishing.

  24. Congratulations, Joan! (sorry, I just got back here today.) I agree with those posted above. As an honorable mention, I can’t wait to see the rest, and Mary’s comments are indeed very helpful. I would definitely read the rest of this story.

  25. I loved that beginning- 132 words and a world already unvelied, an issue and protagonist and heroine introduced and intrigue built 🙂 Great job!

  26. Shari Maser says:

    Congratulations, Joan! I’m intrigued by your beginning and by your title too. I can’t wait to read the rest of the novel when it’s published.

  27. I’m really excited for you! Well done 🙂

  28. Mary Beth says:

    Thanks for the great entry! A question for Mary Kole – when is it ok to use “as” and “while”, which I read in a book were considered cliches in writing? I noticed Joan uses it (very nicely) in the first sentence.

  29. Mary Beth — I wouldn’t call these cliches… they often serve a very specific purpose in writing. Where did you hear advice against them? If a word serves a purpose and there can be no other word there than THAT WORD, then you should most certainly make the choice to use it. How else would you say, for example, “He chewed his dinner … he watched TV”? You wouldn’t use a clunky substitute like, say, “He chewed his dinner during the process of watching TV,” right? “He chewed his dinner as he watched TV” or “he chewed his dinner while he watched TV” are the two most elegant solutions. Maybe if you came up with an example of a more cliched usage, I’d be able to see more clearly what you mean.

  30. Mary Beth says:

    Jerome Sterns talks about it in MAKING SHAPELY FICTION, p 101. Is this just one man’s opinion? “That use of as as a coordinating conjunction between two main clauses looks harmless and certainly is not toxic. But there’s something so familiar in it that it reminds readers of commercial magazine stories. There can’t be anything intrinsically wrong with as used in this way, but look for it in opening sentences of admired, anthologized stories, and you’re not likely to find it. The same is true for while: ‘What’s up with you?” asked Mary, while raising her can of Diet Coke. ‘Mr. Garvish donned his gay raincoat, as he stared at us angrily.'”

  31. Mary Beth — Meh. I have little to say about this. Anything used too much begins to stick out, but everything should be about choices. If you want to use a coordinating conjunction between two causes and it fits there, do it. If you don’t, don’t. I’ve honestly never put a moment of thought toward this before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com