Last Time–I Promise!

This is the version I’m going to use for now, because it’s 1:30 am and I’m freakin’ exhausted, and the deadline for the hook contest is today. (If you’ve already figured out I’m annoying, be glad I’m not a family member!) I’ll give it a week or so before I re-read, edit out mistakes, decide to re-write it entirely again, query it, or whatever.

However, I’m still iffy about the first two sentences as a hook. The first two paragraphs, even.

The 250 words for the contest are highlighted. 🙂

*

Maybe it was weird for a sixteen-year-old girl to still be afraid of the dark, but everyone has their phobias. Actually, I was fine with normal darkness–but when you mixed in wind and trees, I’d start to freak out. I blamed my grandma for that.
There was this ghost story she would tell my brother Drew and me when we were kids. Of course, a few years ago I’d stopped believing in ghosts. Or in the story that, to this day, she swore was true. But when the wind came howling up out of the trees, I found my skepticism wavering…
The door of the coffee shop rattled. I looked out the window, then jumped up, slamming my book shut. The clouds were already darkening to lead-gray, streaked with purple and pink at the edges.
The cashier shot me a perky smile from behind the counter. “Leaving already, Nissa?”
I barely heard her as I stuffed the book into my backpack and tossed out the remainder of my hot chocolate. Waving goodbye over my shoulder, I pushed the door open and hurried out into the gusty evening.
The air smelled like pine and chimney smoke. I stuffed my hands into my jacket pockets and quickened my pace, dashing across the street to the empty field in front of the woods. The tall yellow grass lashed against my knees. I already knew I wasn’t setting foot inside the trees with the wind whipping up the branches like this.
I got to the dusty trail that circled the small forest and started left, keeping a nervous eye on the black spaces under the boughs. But only a few steps along, the wind died, cut off as abruptly as if someone had placed a giant glass over the field, stilling the air. I stopped dead too, and stared into the pines, debating.
Walking around added another half hour–twenty minutes if I ran. Either way, night would be complete by the time I got home. I hated the thought of how I’d react if the wind picked up again in full darkness. And I was already cutting it close. If I took too much longer, Ben would have an accident on the carpet and Mom would kill me.
It would take five minutes to cut through the trees at a jog. The full moon shone through a break in the clouds enough to illuminate the narrow path between the trunks. I’d taken this route countless times before, so why hesitate now?
Something felt different tonight, like the motionless air was heavier. Expectant. I paused just inside and wasted another minute peering into the gloom, seeing nothing but pine needles and scattered bushes. The only thing different, I realized, was that I’d been obsessing over Grandma’s tale ever since the wind knocked on the door of the coffee shop. Of course I felt jittery. I rolled my eyes, then went in at a casual walk to spite my fearful mind.
Shadows carpeted the trail. Despite my attempts to push it out of my head, the ghost story replayed itself in Grandma’s voice.
I had just turned eighteen, barely out of high school. Back then there were a lot more trees around town. The little stretch of woods at the bottom of the hill was part of a bigger forest–before the shopping center and the new school took its place. Your neighborhood hadn’t been built yet, but the walking path I used to take was close enough to where you live now.
I found myself jumping at sounds, and sang an annoying song under my breath as a distraction. Still, I imagined Grandma talking.
You could say it was a dark and stormy night. She’d always laughed at this. The wind sounded like a pack of hyenas coming straight from the heart of the trees. It made me nervous, even though I wasn’t a girl anymore. I swore I could hear voices in those gusts, like evil things coming closer, looking for me. I walked faster, trying to control my steps so I didn’t twist an ankle, and also to convince myself it was all in my imagination. Only then, the wind died to a gentle breeze. The voices stopped, and I saw a silvery glow bobbing toward me from a few yards away.
The slightest breath of air whispered through the pine needles, kissing my cheek with icy lips. I came to a halt, suddenly aware of how dim it was under the canopy, the clouds concealing the moon’s light. A burst of panic bloomed in my chest as I realized I’d wandered from the trail. Every tree trunk, rock, and shrub looked exactly the same as I whirled around, trying to find the dirt track.
Grandma’s voice continued unbidden in my mind. I waited a moment to see if it was someone approaching with a lantern, but instead it was only a light: a disembodied, glowing ball floating between the branches. Thin, bright streams, like arms, were growing out of it and reaching for me. My head felt slow and fuzzy, almost a happy feeling, but I held on to enough of my senses to turn tail and race out of there. I didn’t look back, and I never went into the woods again. She would shake a finger at Drew’s laughing face here. And I never will go into any forest, and that’s how you know I tell the truth.
Mom often told us of how Grandma would hide beneath blankets, trembling and whimpering on windy nights, and how Grandpa would have to calm her down. That was the part of the story that always made me wonder whether I shouldn’t have stopped believing.
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Whoops. I Need to Sharpen My Hook

Big, snuggly thanks to everyone who gave their opinions on the two hooks I posted yesterday! I’d been working on similar versions for so long that it never occurred to me until today to try something completely different. I thought about everyone’s advice, and how they liked the 2nd clip better than the first. I agree, actually. I prefer a little character development too, rather than jumping straight into the action.

I’m pretty excited about what I wrote tonight. I tried to capture a sense of Nissa’s personality, introduce a bit of her family life, create a sense of tension and conflict, give her a difficult choice, and reveal why she’s afraid of going into the woods without that internal narrative info dump. Let me know if this sounds better than the other two.

I’m pasting the entire new scene, and highlighting the first 250 words that I’d use for the contest.

*

The wind picked up, sending a shivery howl through the branches, and I skipped a few steps away. Like it was laughing, the forest flung a handful of dry needles after me. The air smelled like pine and chimney smoke. I stuffed my hands into my jacket pockets and quickened my pace.

Eva rolled her eyes, hurrying to keep up. “Seriously, Nissa? You just turned sixteen. Don’t tell me you still won’t take the shortcut home.”

“I’m not going in there.” I spared one glance at the dark spaces between the tree trunks before marching off along the field.

“But going around the woods takes another twenty minutes! My mom’s picking me up in an hour. We’ll never get our project done in time.”

“Let’s jog, then.”

My best friend yanked my arm, forcing me to stop and face the trees again. “Nope. You’re getting over this right now. I’ve walked down that trail a million times to get to your house and nothing’s happened. And your brother practically grew up in there.

It was my turn to roll my eyes. “Go ahead and laugh, but I believe what my grandma saw–”

Eva did laugh. “Yeah, about some guy swinging a lantern around in the forest a hundred years ago. She was just messing with you.”

“No! I know she was serious. She always stuck to her story, no matter how many times she told it.” I pulled my arm out of Eva’s hands, and the well-rehearsed words spilled out in a rush. “When she was like eighteen or so, she was walking down the path and thought she heard voices in the wind. Then she saw a light moving straight toward her. And it wasn’t a lantern, it was this disembodied glowing ball. Something like arms were growing out of it and reaching for her. She said it made her head feel slow and fuzzy, but she turned and ran. She never went back in after that.”

Eva made an impatient sound. “No matter how many times you tell me what your grandma said, it always sounds like a campfire ghost story.”

“Well, if she was making it up to scare us, then why did she freak out when Drew tried to get her to go with him one time? Why was she always afraid of the wind? She never went back in!”

“It doesn’t mean you have to be stupid.”

“Your mom’s stupid.”

A slow, wicked grin crept across Eva’s face. “Okay, I dare you.”

“Grow up,” I sniffed.

“No, you grow up, Nissa! Haven’t they cut down half the woods since your grandma was young? This can hardly be called a forest anymore. Listen, I’ll make you a bet: If you can get all the way through by yourself, I’ll buy you a smoothie twice a week after school for the rest of the year.”

I snorted and took another step on the dusty path that circled the trees. Eva cut in front of me.

“Okay, and…you can pick out any pair of awesome shoes you want and I’ll get them for you too. As long as they’re not a hundred dollars or anything.”

“Why would I want you to buy me shoes when I can borrow yours anytime?”

She came up close to my face, lowering her voice. “But if you don’t do this, you have to convince your dad to give us movie passes every weekend until New Year’s.”

“He lets us watch movies for free all the time anyway.”

“Yeah, but you’ll have to bug your brother at the concession counter every time for snacks and drinks, no charge. Drew hates that.”

“You’re not convincing me, and you’re not threatening me. Come on, we could’ve been halfway to my house by now!”

Eva tossed her wild blonde hair out of her eyes. “I’m curing you! All right, if you’re not going to take a bribe, then…I’m telling Ethan you’re in love with him.”

I froze, forgetting how to talk for a second. “You wouldn’t…”

“You know I would!”

“Oh, come on, Eva, really!” Smirking, she folded her arms, knowing she had me. I fixed her with my angriest glare. “Fine. Forget the shoes, though. You’re going to be my personal slave every day until after winter break, and buy me the smoothies, and get me a Barnes & Noble gift card that doesn’t count as my Christmas present.”

“Done.” Eva waved toward the trees. “Go on, get it over with.”

The purple-streaked sky contrasted with the shadowy, waving branches above the path. I hesitated just under the first pine. “Why alone, though? It’d still be bad enough even if you went in with me.”

“No, it wouldn’t. You’re not really facing your fears if I’m there holding your hand. I’ll give you a two-minute head start. Run through if you have to, and just wait for me on the other side.” Eva gave me a reassuring pat, then a firm push, on the shoulder. “Better make it fast. It’s starting to get dark.”

The vivid image of a ghostly light creeping through the trees flashed through my mind. Before I could decide otherwise, I charged up the path between the trunks.

Where’s My Fishing Pole?

Can I hook a teen? Sure, I have two teens of my own, so I have years of experience. All you need is a really good, sturdy hook, like the one below, and then you gotta bait it with some pizza or an iPhone–

Okay, I’m going to stop now before I get in trouble! This particular contest is about an entirely different kind of hook: The beginning of your story. For me, crafting the perfect First Page Hook is scarier and more painful than a big, sharp fishhook right in the butt (which happened to my sister when she was a kid).

I have a great time writing once the story gets going, but that first page is a killer. I think I’ve revised it 10 times, and last week my wonderful writers’ group told me it’s still not hooky enough. (What would I do without them? Working on a MS which is nowhere near as polished, is the answer!)

Back to that in a minute. Brenda Drake is hosting a super-fun and challenging contest to show off our amazing, shiny, perfect 250-word hooks. Not just any old 250 words, but the book’s very beginning – the exact part which is likely to hook and draw in the readers you’re trying to attract. Kate and Taryn of Teen Eyes Editorial Services will be the judges, and boy am I as nervous as a worm hanging onto the end of a fishing line!

I’ll definitely be tweaking and polishing my entry some more before the deadline on September 23. I haven’t changed anything since writers’ group last week, thinking I’d let it stew, but nothing has really come to mind yet. They think the 2nd paragraph is a bit of an info dump that can be written into the action instead. I’m also going to post the original beginning, in the hopes that maybe some of you can help me sort the problem out.

So this is what I’m using now:

The wind flung debris into my eyes over the pages of the book, jarring me back to reality. A faint glow from the full moon was just starting to show over the tops of the trees. Nighttime had sneaked up on me again. Great. I stopped walking long enough to stuff the paperback I’d been reading into my backpack before I fell on my face, then quickened my steps.

The little pockets of evergreen woods dotting my town are supposed to be haunted. It’s said when the wind moans through the branches on moonless nights, it’s really the sound of otherworldly creatures roaming the trees in search of something they lost centuries ago. Whether or not anyone believed it, they couldn’t deny the trees here seemed older and wilder than in the big mountain forests above town. Especially the narrow strip of pines below the hill near my house: It was always too dark and cold in there, even in the middle of the day. And the sound of the gusts blowing through the branches: Unearthly is the only word to describe it. More like the howling of animals than air rushing through leaves.

So it really sucked that the trail through the woods was the quickest way home. I hated my brother for telling me the old ghost story too many times as a kid, with that embellished, sadistic way only older brothers can do.

And the original beginning:

The wind rattled the door next to me like it was trying to get in, making me jump. My cup of hot chocolate fell off the table, spilling all over my backpack. I grabbed napkins from the dispenser and mopped the chocolate up, then wadded them into a sopping ball, which I tossed at the garbage bin. It hit the side with a juicy splat and slid to the floor.

The cashier shot me a perky smile from behind the counter. “You aren’t leaving already, are you, Nissa? The only book you’ve cracked all afternoon’s been that corny romance.”

“It’s getting dark.” I stuffed the book into my backpack and aimed my cup at the bin, where it bounced off the rim to join the dripping napkins on the floor.

“See you tomorrow?”

I scooped my garbage up into the bin, then cast a nervous glance at the purple sky, where the faintest glow from the full moon was just starting to show over the tops of the trees. “Maybe. It seems like night is starting to come earlier now.” I waved goodbye, then headed across the parking lot. If I hurried, I could probably still make the shortcut through the woods. The wind blew harder as I reached the crosswalk, biting my cheeks with a chill that felt like early winter and smelled like log fires.

Darkness and wind. Not a good combination. There’s an old legend about the little pockets of woods dotting my town.

Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t think the cafe scene was really necessary. Just after that part, she gets to the woods, and then there’s the description about why they’re so creepy. It was this original beginning that hooked Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown and got her to request a full – but then she broke my heart anyway! 😉

I’d love to know what parts of either version you find to be the most hooky. When you start a book, what is it about the first page that sucks you in? An intro to the main characters before adding the conflict? Starting right in the middle of the action? Dialogue, internal narrative, or a combination? What books have you read recently whose beginnings you just loved?

I can’t wait to read the other entrants’ first 250 words and find out all the creative and amazing ways they’re beginning their books!

An Agent Pitch Contest I’m Entering–Wish Me Luck!

Here’s an update of where I am now in my querying quest: 18 queries awaiting an agent’s answer; 42 rejections in total (3 of those were in the last couple of days). But who’s really counting, right? I set aside two nights a week to fire off query letters and research agents. The rest of the time I sit on the couch, cradling my laptop, chewing my fingernails to the quick, and obsessively checking my email every few minutes. No, not really! That was me two years ago. I only check my writing inbox two or three times a day now. ;D
So to break up the monotony a bit, I’m entering my second-ever contest! (The first was for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel award, and a massive fail). My awesome friend Jolene sent this through ANWA’s group. The agent, Victoria Marini, sounds like someone I’d like to have represent me. With my pervasive test anxiety and inferiority complex, I used to shy away from contests but now I figure I don’t have anything to lose. I think I have a pretty decent pitch, Jolene critiqued my query letter and told me it’s stellar (Jolene’s the query letter queen), and I have the completed and polished manuscript ready for any agent willing to have a look.
Here’s the link to the pitch contest. I don’t have long to wait: The winners are announced August 1st. Now to sit back, not chew my fingernails, take a deep breath, and keep on doing what I love best: listen to music and write!

The Music War

I’m editing The Moongate once again, trying to polish my entry for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Even after more than six read-throughs and rewrites, it seems I still have to work on those pesky adverbs, and silly dialogue. I’ll probably never feel like the book is finally done and can no longer be improved upon–but I can at least assure myself that with every edit, it turns out a little better than it was before. Soon enough, I hope, I’ll reach the point where I don’t feel I need to go through it and change it anymore. It’ll never be perfect, but I’ll have to content myself with “good enough.”
I’ve always liked the following scene though, of Nissa’s confrontation with her brother Drew:

Saturday night I was sprawled on my bed, listening to my tiny CD player. The front door slammed downstairs. I heard cheery voices and cupboards slamming. Drew had returned from work, and it sounded like he and Mom were enjoying a late-night snack together. A couple of weeks ago I might have joined them, but now I just turned the music up and rolled over. The book in my hand dropped to the floor. I kicked my backpack with its load of unfinished homework off the foot of the bed. Ben grunted as it bounced off him.

A few minutes later Drew’s big feet clomped up the stairs, and his bedroom door clicked shut. Soon the thumping bass of his stereo system overshadowed my music. I turned it up again.

After a few seconds his music got louder. Ben’s ears twitched, feeling the vibration through the walls. I turned my volume up as loud as it would go. The guitar riffs screamed through the room, but my little CD player didn’t have a chance next to Drew’s expensive equipment. My plants rattled on their shelves as Drew’s music permeated the entire second floor.

Ben whined and buried his head under my blanket. I ripped my CD player’s cord out of the wall and stormed out into the hallway, throwing Drew’s door open so it bounced back against the doorstop. Sitting on the ratty armchair next to his bed, he looked up from his car magazine.

“Do you mind!” I shouted. “I’m trying to enjoy some peace and quiet!”

“How can you call that heavy guitar stuff you listen to ‘peace and quiet’?” he yelled back.

“It’s better than the crappy country music you’re forcing me to listen to through the wall!”

Drew flung the magazine onto his bed and punched his stereo’s power button. The sudden silence felt like a heavy blow. Then he jumped up and crossed the room in two strides, glaring down at my face.

“At least now I know you’re still alive!” he yelled. “What’s wrong with you lately? You’re like a zombie, sitting around in your room all day and treating us like we don’t exist!”

“How do you think you’d act if you were grounded? All happy to still be around everyone?”

“I’m nineteen, I don’t get grounded anymore.”

“It’s not like you haven’t been grounded more times than me. And you’d hole up in your room too!”

“I don’t mean now, since you’ve been grounded. For weeks you’ve been acting weird, like you’re a different person…”

“YOU HAVE NO IDEA!” I screamed so loudly that he backed off, blinking in surprise. I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing the tears back behind my eyelids.

“What is it then? Is this some kind of–of woman thing?”

“What the crap is that supposed to mean? You’re so stupid, Drew. You don’t know anything!”

“It’s about Sophie then, isn’t it? You’ve repressed all that guilt over the years, and now–”

“No, it’s not about Sophie! I don’t even remember her!”

“You said once that it had been your idea to walk with her to the pond!”

My hands clenched, and the stinging tears finally rolled down my cheeks. “Is that it, then? YOU blame me for her drowning? I was only four!

“Nobody blames you, you idiot! It’s just that–”

“That’s–enough!” Mom’s voice made both of us jump. I wheeled around, my hands clamped over my mouth. Nobody talked about Sophie’s death around Mom.

She glared at us through the pain in her eyes, and spoke in a calm, slow voice. “This isn’t about–Sophie–” She swallowed. “Or anything like that. Drew, stop deliberately annoying your sister.”

Drew spluttered. “I’m not–”

“Don’t give me that, young man. I heard who started the music war, along with the rest of the neighborhood. You’ll leave Nissa alone. As for you…” She put her hands on my face, wiping away the tears. “Whoever it is you’re seeing late at night when you’re supposed to be in bed, if you can’t bring them over to meet your family, then they’re not the type of person you should be seeing. Is that understood?”

I could just imagine bringing over Eiden, Harsk, or even Ephos to meet my parents. I bit my lip hard to contain the hysterical laughter that threatened to burst out, and nodded.

She continued. “I’m not going to ask anymore what’s going on, because it’s clear you’re not going to talk until you’re ready. But I want to make it known that you won’t be leaving this house, not even to see Eva after school, until you shake this influence that’s been causing you to behave so–unlike yourself these past few weeks.”

I wanted to tell her that I had been trying to shake that influence, trying harder than she knew. Instead, I looked at the floor and nodded again. It wouldn’t take that much longer to regain their trust; since I was in control of the Gate now and not the other way around, I only needed a week or two of normal behavior. That, plus bringing my grades back up, would get me off the hook.

Mom started to pull me in for a hug, but I twisted out of her grasp and darted back into my room, mumbling something about homework as I went. I heard her sad sigh as I shut the door, and started to feel terrible, until I remembered it was Drew who had brought up the subject of Sophie in the first place. I opened my desk drawer and pulled out the old picture, hidden under dozens of classroom notes from Eva, and birthday cards and such. Two little girls with suntanned skin and dark hair, kneeling in a wagon and grinning at the person holding the camera. I couldn’t even remember when the picture had been taken.

That made two times in the past month that Drew had brought up the subject of Sophie. I was starting to wonder if maybe he’d been feeling guilty himself that he hadn’t known we’d wandered off until it was too late–as if a seven-year-old could have been more responsible than the adults who were supposed to be watching us. I shook my head and returned the yellowing picture to the bottom of the pile in the drawer.