Third Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

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.


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!

36 Replies to “Third Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest”

  1. Fantastic. I loved how you described the red head as looking like a stork.
    I want to continue reading.

  2. Oh, my gosh, how I love this sample. I love the voice, I love the description … basically, I just want to curl up with this novel. Like, now. Bravo, Helen!

  3. Gail Goetz says:

    I’m with you, Mary. If I read this much of this novel, I’d keep reading.

  4. Don Cummer says:

    Yeah, I’d read on too! Great sense of place without ever resorting to exposition. Great sense of what the characters look like without getting bogged down in description. And the mystery hook at the end really grabbed me. Great stuff, Helen.

  5. Congrats, Helen! I appreciate your smart job of revealing your character without boring us or hitting us over the head with obvious exposition. Plus, I like this character. Too many times, I’ve read a girl-protagonist story that I just can’t identify with.

    I’d love to

  6. Wow! Great sample. Lots of info packed in there with seeming effortlessness. (Ha!)

    I’m hooked.

    And truly helpful reflections. Good to hear what makes a good YA literary novel and also that paranormal is not all there is.

  7. Mary, to say these are helpful in pointing out the positive and negative aspects of my own beginnings is an understatement.

    Congratulations to the winners. I can see their wins are well-deserved.

  8. The past two winners are excellent. I like that they are different styles but both have a good hooks.

    Once again, I’m anxious to read the next three novel beginnings. Wow, there are some talented writers out there!

    Congratulations :).

  9. YAY! Congrats Helen. Keep up the great work and thank you Mary, wonderful comments.

  10. Wow. Just wow. The writing here is spectacular and the author has a great command over first person – she makes it look easy, and you fall into the world without any effort at all.

    Nicely done.

  11. melodycolleen says:

    This is an awesome example of writiing. Way to go.

    Mary, the feedback you’re giving and sharing with us here is such a valuable tool and a wonderful gift. Can’t thank you enough.

  12. Wow. This is right up my alley. I want to read it right now.

    Thanks for the analysis of what’s working, Mary. It was really helpful.

  13. Mary, thank you very much for all of your time and energy you put into your contests. I especially like your inner commentary embedded in the actual entry…very interesting.

    I really liked this one – fantastic hook at the end!!

  14. love this and i want to read more. though i wouldn’t write this off as not being paranormal/fantasy. i have a feeling the tall man in the black suit might be “different.” (a merman??)
    I’m actually very curious about this because if he turns out to be what I think he is, this is somewhat similar to my WIP.
    Is the author reading this?

  15. This was so much fun to read and definitely well written. Can’t wait to see what second and first place are!

  16. This is good! It had my mind churning from the start (in a good, intrigued way). The title made me wonder if it might be linked/ alluding to Indiana Jones. Now, I’ wondering if the pale guy in formal clothes is some type of immortal.

  17. Katherine says:

    This is a very good novel beginning. I’d gladly read more.

  18. Helen Robertson says:

    Wow! Thanks to everyone for your comments and congratulations. This has made my day.

    As for questions regarding the tall pale one being anything but human…nope, he’s just a guy who doesn’t get out in the sun much…but he does have an interesting job!

  19. Oh, I want to read this book! Well, it’s not a book yet apparently but I so want it to be, and then I can read it. I am totally hooked! This is my genre–literary realism, especially an inside look at a family–YA is ok if I like the voice from the beginning, and I I love this voice.

  20. Shari Maser says:

    Congratulations, Helen. And thanks, Mary, for the running commentary.

  21. Shari — Wow. I think that’s the first time anyone has sincerely said “Thanks, Mary, for the running commentary” without a single TRACE of sarcasm! Awesome.

  22. aj finnegan says:

    I really loved this, too. The story took me to a solid location and made me want to be in this character’s head. I would’ve kept reading for sure. Well done!

  23. I loved this! When can I read the rest?!

  24. I’m not a writer but I’m a reader and I’m here because a friend of mine has entered this contest and posted the link on FB.
    There is an intriguing quirkiness to this story that makes me want to continue – it has potential to develop in so many directions!
    I hope I can read the rest of it!

  25. R. Turney-Work says:

    This is a wonderful start! I love the mystery element and character descriptions. Alabama Jones sounds like someone you would want to know as a young lady. You are a great writer, Helen!!

  26. Wow! I’ve quite enjoyed both honored entries so far. And the comments on each part are so helpful, Mary.

  27. Congrats, Helen! The rest of the beginning is great, but it’s the little hint of the mystery surrounding the “stork” that really captures my interest.


  28. These types of posts from agents are EXACTLY what a unpublished writer needs. Your comments in between are so insightful. Thank you.

  29. More insightful stuff. Thanks. (Lots of rewriting going on at this end!) And big congratulations to the writers.

  30. Congrats.

    Wow, this was really good. I love your comments, Mary. Intriguing story, I’d read more for sure!!

  31. Congratulations, Helen. I don’t typically read literary fiction, but this was so nicely done, I would make an exception. I enjoyed your first line, as it promised something different. Also, thanks for entering so we can learn from your writing. It takes a lot to do that.

    Mary, wanted to say that your input is invaluable. Hands on feedback is the best way to learn. Even if the commentary isn’t on our own writing. It is well worth following the contest to learn these nuggets of info. Thanks.

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