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!


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.


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!

35 Replies to “Second Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest”

  1. I LOVE this opening! I will buy this author’s book in a heartbeat. Could someone publish it, please?

  2. I want to read more. I want to see how the paranormal romance happens. Congratulations!

  3. This is a fascinating contest. There’s some good writing here, but like you, I was thrown by the dry heaving and crying in a soul. Maybe these things become clearer later — this is such a small extract. I would have read on too.

  4. I think I liked 3rd place a little better, but that’s probably b/c this genre doesn’t appeal to me as much.

  5. “here are clues for the next two winners…we have a contemporary YA mystery and a contemporary MG”

    Ah. Not mine, then. So congratulations to all the winners: I’ve enjoyed the ones so far and am eager to see the Top Two next week!


  6. WOW! J.R. It takes a lot to get my dyslexic mind to like something and I REALLY like your writing, you had me laughing and feeling so much, great job…Congrats!

  7. Mmmmm. To be honest, I can’t say I liked this one much. A bit surprised by the choice.

  8. Just goes to show you how subjective this business is (and no, that’s not just something nice we say during a rejection), right guys? 🙂

  9. Learning. Learning. Learning!

    Thanks, Mary and all the people who offered work. This is such a useful exercise. (Even if those of us on the other side of the pond have to wait all day for the results… I only looked ten or so times!)

  10. This line was my favorite:

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

    Congratulations, J.R.!

  11. Congratulations to J.R.! Well deserved.

    Mary–your commentary is so helpful.

    *Internal conflict versus external conflict is a constant balance in writing*

    Yep. Something for me to work on–I tend to lightswitch from one to the other rather than finding the balance and have to do a whole run-through edit to fix this later in the writing process.

    Thanks for doing this.

  12. Shari Maser says:

    Congratulations, J.R.

    This is just the kind of opening that draws my hard-to-interest teenage daughter in. You have introduced an interesting personality in an interesting situation, so she’d definitely want to turn the page and find out more. Bravo!

  13. I was very drawn to this right from the get-go, but like you, I was thrown by the last paragraph. Wasn’t her “empty vessel” just taken away in the ambulance? And can a soul actually dry heave and make a puddle of tears? I don’t mind these things. It might actually be cool if a soul was just a different kind of physical, but these are gaps that need to be closed at some point. At the very least, she could be surprised that she still has physical and emotional feeling, even though she’s dead.

    Bravo! I do hope I get to read it all some day.

  14. I really didn’t like the excerpt, but thanks for the comments. They were very instructive.

  15. Hey friends. The person whose work is being dissected here has taken a great, big leap of faith, they’ve opened themselves up to public opinion… and they will most likely be checking the comments on this entry. Let’s keep it positive and constructive and support your fellow writers.

  16. Erica Olson says:

    I’m dittoing (is that a word?) Mike from above. The clues don’t lead to me being a finalist, but I am learning from others. Congrats to the winners (and really to everyone that entered – we’ve got finished novels if nothing else so far).

  17. JR, congrats! I loved the voice of this piece. I imagine that if a teen was allowed to view his/her death, we would get very similar commentary no matter what the circumstance. “Ach, how could I let that bear eat me?” “Oooh, mom’s gonna be mad when she sees the big dent in her car. She’s gonna kill me…oh wait, I’m already dead.”

    I think you did a fine job of capturing the voice of your protag.

    What is interesting about the commentary, is you can see from the three examples that perfection isn’t necessarily the piece that gets us noticed. Sure it is good writing, but a unique storyline, excellent voice and the reader’s connection are equally important in getting noticed.

    We–writers, readers, editors and agents–don’t all like the same type of book. It doesn’t mean there is no merit. It’s just a reminder that everyone has different tastes, and for us, as writers, to find the agents who click with our work.

    Again, thanks to JR for putting yourself out there, and thanks to Mary for your awesome feedback.

  18. Congratulations, J.R.! I really love the voice you were able to capture here – Sarah is such a realistic teen already. Her narration is biting and funny and just the thing to bring lightness to a potentially sad premise. Loved it.

  19. Reading this opening chapter, I was captured. To be honest, much more then when I began reading “the lovely bones” and yes, yes I know it is a terrrific book with, obviously, huge market potential via the movie but honestly, as great as it finally was after getting into the story, the opening wasn’t that suspensful. This story is, I do hope the author has more where this came from. If so, this is the next best thing!

  20. JR Hochman says:

    Thanks to everyone who has posted a comment. Negative and positive alike. It’s amazing the things you don’t see when you get too close to your own material. Or the things you thought you changed but didn’t! *Sigh.* (Note to self: binge drink less.)

    So I’m grateful for Mary’s constructive criticisms, and I am really looking forward to her coming critique. I hope she rakes me over the coals and shows no mercy! LOL! That’s the only way for me to make my writing better. Anyone who wants to be a writer needs to develop a thick skin. And an open mind.

    To echo Cat above, perfection probably really isn’t attainable. And tastes vary greatly. All you can do is revise, revise, revise and get your novel to a place where agents and editors can see the potential. To get your novel to the point where they say, “There’s an audience for this.” And then write a fat check!

  21. I am reading these winning entries and while they are good, even clever, I am discouraged. Is there no “literary” writing left in the YA market? Is it all “here are 200 pages all about me” stories from a teenage perspective. Are there no more books like The Book Thief or a Separate Peace, to name just two.

  22. Jessica — This is one sampling from 400 entries. I can only feature what people send in. This content isn’t necessarily representative of what I see under regular circumstances, which is not to say these entries are better or worse, of course.

    Yes, tthere is literary writing left in YA. And THE BOOK THIEF was published in 2006, not in some long bygone golden age. Don’t get me wrong… I’d love to find the next BOOK THIEF in my inbox, too.

    I do have to say that “here are 200 pages all about me” doesn’t seem like much of a story. Literary YA is more character-driven than plot-driven, sure, but a rambling 200 page inner monologue must be broken up by SOME action in order to make it in this market. I remember there being a great deal of plot in both of the books you mention…

  23. Another congratulations coming your way, J.R.!

    Interestingly (and this probably has nothing to do with anything, so don’t stress over it too much, J.R.), the first line made me think our narrator was a boy. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because my WIP features a male protagonist…

  24. J.R.,

    Congrats on a job well done. I liked your intro and enjoy the variety of all three winners. Thank you for putting your work out there and allowing us to eavesdrop on your journey to super stardom!

  25. There was some great stuff in this opening, but some of the writing jarred me a bit, and I didn’t feel as impressed with this entry as with the honorable mention and third place winners. Just goes to show how subjective this all is. I truly did not think the writing here was as well-crafted as the last two entries, that placed behind this one.

  26. What a great hook to open the book! As I personally nearly died last winter from slipping on some ice and bruising my brain in the fall, this opening is particularly resonant with me. Don’t worry, I’m fine now. But if I had died, I also would have been irritated by such a dumb way to go.
    Enough about me, onto the story excerpt:

    I wish we knew how she felt about the tennis game. It’s a small thing, but is she irritated she will be losing by withdrawing from the match? That would be really funny considering she’s dead and would better illustrate the character. Or, did she never really care about sports and is therefore indifferent. Or did she hate that she was playing tennis and is now annoyed that it was the last thing she ever got to do? But perhaps this comes up later in the story and is better mentioned there than here.

    Also, I love that you introduce the word “shit” so early. If a YA novel is going to allow for profanity (my personal preference for YA, but not MG), it’s better to advertise that fact to the reader as soon as it can plausibly be worked into the prose. That way, if a particular reader isn’t comfortable with profanity in their YA fiction, they can stop reading early. And if a reader is comfortable with it, they’ll know they can probably expect more.

  27. melodycolleen says:

    Congratulations,JR, on a job well done.

    Not that my two cents are worth much, but I can see how a teen would enjoy and identify with this voice. A bit self-absorbed, but still worried about others, a little funny, but still tragic, a little remorseful, and yet there’s determination at the end. Sounds just like my own teen!

    The only thing that sort of threw me off track was the comment near the end about “then a funny thing happened”. I think another choice of word might work better than ‘funny’ in this case. I was expecting more humor with that remark.

    Again, major congrats. And now I know without doubt that mine isn’t in the running either, but I’m learning much and thoroughly enjoying reading the winners.

  28. Helen Robertson says:

    I like this protagonist’s voice a lot! Like someone else who commented though, I thought it was a boy at first. Keep going, JR!!!

  29. I really really like this, JR. It has a more interesting opening than most of what I’ve read lately! I would definitely read this book.

  30. LOVED your opening line. It’s one of my all time favourites!

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