The long list for the Historical Novel Society’s New Historical Novel award was posted on July 2nd. My entry, Mermaid’s Courage, was not among them. I admit, I was more than a little bummed by it. Then again, the judges needed an extra day to choose 16 titles from the 40 they’d winnowed out from over 200 entries. There’s no way to know if mine was among those 40 or not. After a day of reflection, I got right back in the saddle. This time, I entered it as a historical romance to Chanticleer Book Reviews. It works better as a historical romance rather than straight up historical fiction. Final results won’t be revealed until March 2016. I also entered it under the pen name, Ina Bell. For years I thought I’d use Jonquil Aries as my pen name, but I like Ina Bell much better. It’s much more lyrical.
I’ve also dedicated some time to browsing available writings to critique over on Scribophile. The two writers I reached out to responded well to my insight. One of them asked if he could consult me on matters related to witchcraft since his main character practices the art. I assume his character is Wiccan due to the way he wrote her. I’m not Wiccan, but I will see what I can do to help him. The second writer and I have written to one another a few times already. I’ve also recommended Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon to her. It’s probably the best writing resource I have on my shelf. It’s why I was able to see the glaring errors in Lifeline’s old opening.
One of the most important things a writer must nail down is the opening. Here is where you are introduced to the main character, his/her conflict, the world, (be it imagined or our own), and the tone. Lifeline is a contemporary paranormal piece about a character with the ability to see and speak with ghosts. The following are introductory scenes for him. Let’s do a comparison, shall we?
A bell rang in the distance, effectively ending the school day and year until after the holidays‒ neither of which mattered much to Gabriel Duvall. He glanced up at the wall clock, noted the time, and resumed his work. The spreadsheet for next spring’s basketball team match-ups was open on his computer screen, the array of school names, player names, and dates showing he had another busy season ahead.
He grasped the mug decked out in the school colors and took a sip of coffee. His mood soured. Cold again. This had been the second cup he’d gotten in the last ten minutes. Of course, he didn’t need to look far for the reason. It was staring at him from the doorway.
Ignoring his unwanted guest, Gabriel set the mug aside and resumed typing. The bracelet at his left wrist trailed along the keyboard as he worked. The etchings on its iron pieces matched the lines tattooed along his right forearm. An old picture of him and his twin sister, Sophia, stood within eyesight on the corner of the desk. A post-it note was attached to the frame, the message reminding him to call Sophia back.
Gabriel was halfway finished with a column when there was a knock at the door. He lifted his gaze to see Mitch Graft poke his head in. He was the school’s shop teacher, and pretty much looked it, right down to the shop glasses he never seemed to remember to take off. The other man cracked a little smile at the sight of Gabriel studiously working.
“Hey, Gabriel, you plan on spending Christmas at work?” he quipped.
“Something like that,” Gabriel replied distractedly. “Still got the schedule to do.”
Rather than just duck out like he usually did, Mitch stood in the doorway for a moment, watching Gabriel type away. At last he gave a little, disbelieving laugh. “I don’t get you, man. You been teaching here, what, how long? And you never do anything other than this.” He pointed at the computer. “Don’t you have somewhere to go for the holidays? Someone to see?”
Gabriel leaned back in his chair, slowly. The old, faux leather creaked in protest. “I’m fine, Mitch.”
“Hey, why don’t you come over to my place for dinner this weekend?” Mitch offered, oblivious to Gabriel’s polite refusal. “My wife makes one hell of a chicken parm. You’re Italian; even you can appreciate that.”
When Gabriel looked up to reply, he saw Mitch was leaning against the small shelf by the doorway. The movement caused a small cross to topple to the floor. A little jolt of panic went through him, resulting in him jumping to his feet and answering Mitch in a harsher tone than he wanted.
“I said I’m fine.”
Mitch blanched at Gabriel’s reaction. “Okay, okay. Jesus, Gabriel,” he said, apparently at a loss. “Uh, see you next year,” he added, somewhat lamely, and took his leave.
After he had gone, Gabriel quickly righted the cross. He stood there for a few moments, trying to calm his racing heartbeat. His unwanted visitor kept watching him, which only made things worse. He resolutely turned away. It was time go.
The above scene doesn’t do a very good job at introducing the paranormal elements. Gabriel isn’t jumping out at the reader either. A guy preoccupied with cold coffee doesn’t exactly inspire sympathy. It makes him seem petty. His exchange with Mitch doesn’t do him any favors, either. There’s also no immediate issue at hand. In short, it’s a dull, uninspired opening that will have readers looking elsewhere in no time.
Gabriel Duvall disliked the holidays. Not because he was anti-Christmas or a Scrooge, though his fraternal twin sister, Sophia, sometimes thought so. It’s just that the holidays attracted the living and the dead.
The little ghost girl stood by the Christmas tree in the corner. Light reflected from its red, blue, and green bulbs passed across her like sunlight on water. When she looked an invitation for him to join her, he averted his eyes.
Gabriel shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His therapist had left to take a phone call a few minutes ago. What was it about doctors that drove them to make patients wait? Restlessness surged through him. It was too quiet here. He needed noise. Anything to distract him from his preoccupation with losing his job and the ghost girl.
As she went past him, he slouched in his chair, fingering the iron bracelet- ghosts hated iron- on his left wrist. Etchings on its surface matched those tattooed along the inside of his right forearm. A pair of thin, faded scars on his arms peeked from beneath his sleeves. Another scar, just as faded and just as old, cut halfway across his cheek near the corner of his mouth. It had been the foremost conversation starter, right behind his being told he resembled Chris Noth circa 1994. He’d bet anything Chris Noth didn’t live shoulder to shoulder with the dead. At thirty-eight, Gabriel looked, and felt, years older.
Then there was the scar. Telling people it came from a violent spirit’s attack was impossible, or, at worst, comedic.
He also never revealed that he’d died when he was a boy and came back to life thanks to a ghost.
The tone is clear: this character can see ghosts, and is uncomfortable with it, not annoyed. He’s not at work, he’s in therapy. He’s lost his job. The Christmas tree indicates the time of year. The description of old scars indicates a traumatic past. A reader should be able to connect with Gabriel right away. At least, that’s my hope. In any case, it’s tons better than the original opening. This is just one of the things I took away from Manuscript Makeover. Writers, make this book part of your library. You won’t regret it.