Picking Up Where We Left Off

Posted: December 23, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Last FG Cover

This is either going to be an interesting long-term experiment, or a boring waste of your time. You’ll have to let me know.

I’ve reached the point where I can no longer usefully procrastinate on my daughter’s and my second book, the sequel to our first, The Last Princess. So I’ve been forced to begin actually writing. This second book is called The Last Faerie Godmother, and it picks up almost immediately after the first one ended. And that is where our problems begin.

TLP is a fairly complex story. It is contemporary fantasy, so there is some world-building in there, as well as an extensive cast and a complicated plot. We don’t really want to spend our first chapter on a protracted “So, what had happened was….” On the other hand, even the most engaged reader will need some amount of reminding who everybody is and how we got to where we are now. Plus, this is a children’s book – upper middle grade, to be precise. So some amount of hand-holding is probably warranted.

All of this is meant to convey the fact that I am having some difficulty finding the balance between moving forward and looking backwards. Plus, I want that killer beginning.

So here’s my proposal. I’ve written what I think is a pretty good beginning for TLFG. I’d like to try it out on you and hear what you think. Knowing, as I do, that you have not read the first book (because it hasn’t been published), you will be filling the role of the fresh reader who somehow managed to pick up this book first, despite the fact that it presumably has “Book Two” written on the cover. I think this opening is working, but I thought that about every one of the dozen different openings I wrote for our fist book, so I realize this may not make the final cut. The long-term experiment part is where I will post every substantially different version of the opening to TLFP here, and you can compare and observe the process in real time.

Quick note: some importance has been placed on “the first 250 words,” as least for purposes of pitching contests and pitch critiques, etc. The theory is that your average, stereotypical slush reader will decide within the first 250 words if they will keep reading or not. But there are about a dozen layers of this onion; the first sentence will decide if your reader will read the first paragraph; the first paragraph will decide if they will read the first 250 words; the first 250 will decide if they will read the first 3 pages, etc., etc. etc. And all of this is utterly subjective and made-up. But still, probably true to some degree.

So I’m going to present the first not-quite-500 words. The text will change color when you reach the end of the first 250 words. The reason I did this was to illustrate something else: the first 250 words of any book will set up a certain expectation of what is to come. But in many cases (in the best books, in my opinion), this first impression can be yanked out from under you before too long. That is the case, here. In fact, one of my alpha readers – who is very familiar with the first book – asked me what the punchline was, because the character in the first 250 words are not much like the character we left at the end of the previous book. This reader is familiar with my style, and she sensed I was preparing to pull the rug out. So I’ve given you more words so you can see what I mean.

Here it is:


Chapter One: Secrets

My arrow struck the goblin right between the eyes. He vanished like a popped balloon filled with smoke and glitter.

Three more of the scaly green beasties darted out from behind the trees, braver as a group. They raised their axes and bared sharp piranha teeth, then at some unspoken signal ran right for me, screaming and taunting: “Your days are numbered, Princess!”

Stupid goblins. They always clumped together like that, making a nice fat target. I stood my ground and fired two arrows, one right after the other. My nymph magic gave me a tiny bit of influence over the wood, so I barely had to aim. Two more clouds of green smoke drifted away in the cool breeze.

The last goblin halted in his tracks, alone and uncertain, and dropped his weapon as he prepared to flee. But before he could run, I took two quick steps and swung my fist hard at his chin. Why waste an arrow?

That made four down.

The eerie silence of the dark woods didn’t fool me; more attackers waited for me and my elf-made bow. They always did. I listened for wing-beats in case the sprites were flocking, but I heard nothing from the branches above. So I knelt in the mossy leaves and pretended to tie my bootlace.

When I heard the loud crunch of snapping twigs I smiled. A small giant, maybe. Or a troll. This was getting too easy.

Still kneeling, I eased my bow off my shoulder and slowly reached for an arrow. Then I stood and spun toward the sound, nocking my arrow and drawing it with a single swift motion. An ogre stood five feet away, rotting teeth bared and a massive tree branch gripped in both hands above his shaggy head.

I froze, my arrow pointed directly between his bushy eyebrows. It was Mr. Perrault, my Emissary to the Ogres, my court advisor, and my friend. “This isn’t funny!” I shouted to the forest. “The ogre-born are my allies. I earned their respect and they accepted me as their princess.”

“Bah! Who needs a princess when ze pot is on ze boil? We are hungry.” He lumbered closer, licking his lips.

I let the bowstring go slack and lowered my bow. This is stupid. I wasn’t going to play Faye’s game.

With a grunt, the ogre swung the club down toward my head and I squeezed my eyes shut.

The illusion of the bow in my hand and the dark forest around me dissolved – along with Mr. Perrault. The afternoon sun lit my face and the sounds of distant sawing and hammering rushed in. I opened my eyes to find myself in the middle of our large back yard bordered by trees on three sides, wearing my new winter coat and jeans. My knee was wet where I’d knelt in the snow, and my sneakers were soaked.


There are actually a couple of rugs, here, and the entire chapter will end with a punchline of its own. But I haven’t actually written that far, yet. And my daughter refuses to read what I’ve written until I finish the chapter. So you got the first look.

Tell me in the comments what you thought. Did this grab your attention? Would you keep reading? Are you completely lost? Would you keep moving forward, or put this down and go look for the first book instead?  Or maybe something by a completely different author?

Thanks in advance, and keep an eye out for alternate openings, when I inevitably change this one.

  1. Gorgeous cover! The opening definitely kept my interest. The goblin scene was very well done. I hesitated with the ogre though and then felt a bit let down to discover it was all a dream. BUT, if I picked up the actual book with jacket copy, I’d probably know a little more about what I was getting into and then would have been more prepared for the back yard ending. And yes, I would keep reading to find out who she is. Again, it definitely held my interest, very visual. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marcia,

      Thank you for the comments. I agree there is a bit of a let-down. However, any reader familiar with this world will immediately know there is no way Cat should be fighting these creatures — they’re all extinct (sort of!). Which makes the end of the illusion more of an “Ah Ha!” than a “Oh, darn. I hope!


  2. Hi John,

    It’s a pleasure to finally get to read some of your prose, thanks so much for sharing!

    To get right to it: I loved the opening paragraph, and because of the action and imagery, I was hooked right away, eager to read more.

    Paragraph 2: I loved “braver as a group” and “sharp piranha teeth,” well written. You might include some reference to the size of the goblins, though, to contrast later with the size of the ogre. It would just make the scene a little more vivid and help me as a reader to differentiate between creatures. (It’s so easy to confuse goblins, trolls and ogres.) Maybe start para. 2 with “Three more of the small, scaly green beasties…” or better yet, maybe start para. 3 with “Stupid little goblins.”

    Paragraph 2: A question about dialogue. Would three goblins really scream in unison the words, “Your days are numbered, Princess?” Seems not very believable. How about something short, like: “Die, princess!”

    Paragraph 3: Wonderful writing. Nice concept about the fat target, very easy to visualize. I wouldn’t change a word.

    Paragraph 4: Again, very easy to visualize. It does give me another reason to hope for a previous reference to the goblin’s size, though. If, as I’m hoping, you’ve mentioned that goblins are small, it makes it more believable that she can knock this one out with one blow to the chin.

    Paragraph 5: Short and sweet, a nice punchy line, I love it.

    Paragraphs 6 and 7: Again, hoping to avoid confusion between the goblins who attacked and the troll who’s about to attack, you might want to change “more attackers” to “more danger”. Just a thought. Other than that, very nicely written, I’m still completely hooked.

    Paragraph 8: Great, full of action and easy to visualize. I would only suggest starting the 3rd sentence with “A huge ogre stood five feet away…” –again, it’s just to help differentiate between creatures.

    Paragraph 9: This paragraph is the first twist, of course, and so very important to get right. The problem is the dialogue. It’s too explain-ery and doesn’t sound natural. How about something much shorter, like: “This isn’t funny!” I shouted to the forest. “Ogres are my people! I’m their princess!”

    Paragraph 10: I got stopped by the use of “ze” in place of “the”. I had to read it a couple of times to understand. I’d like to suggest, if you’re set on using the “ze” sound, that you spell it the more conventional way, “zee”. I think I would have understood it more quickly with that spelling.

    The remaining paragraphs seem fine. I just have one more small suggestion: to put a paragraph break in the middle of the last paragraph, after the second sentence. In other words, start a new last paragraph with the words, “I opened my eyes…”

    John, this is probably way more commentary than you expected or even wanted, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m a big fan of your blog, and want very much for you and your daughter to have the success I believe you deserve. If the rest of the book is as engaging as these first paragraphs, I’m sure you will.

    By the way, what did you mean by, “a couple of rugs”?

    I hope we’ll get to see more of your book soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael,

      I’m overwhelmed by your thoughtful and thorough critique of my opening. Thank you so much. You make some excellent points.

      If you are interested in reading the complete manuscript for our first book, please provide an e-mail address where I can send you a link. Please don’t feel obligated to provide detailed comments. However I would appreciate your overall opinion.


  3. bethaman80 says:

    It’s good. I’m so excited that you’re finally writing the next one! Here’s one piece of advice: just write the darn book! Rough drafts are for getting the story down; editing is for getting the story RIGHT. Don’t worry about the perfect beginning NOW, because something might happen later in the writing process that makes you change your mind about where your story begins in the first place.

    Also, I know it’s a bit of a hard transition to go from working on a nearly-perfect manuscript (the first book) to working on a rough-draft quality manuscript (the second book). It’s a transition I just had to make myself, it it was annoying because I wanted my rough draft to be perfect the first time. But remember that first drafts aren’t supposed to be perfect. They’re just supposed to be WRITTEN. So quite worrying and get back to writing. 😉 Just my two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lee says:

    Beautiful prose and imagery, John. Contrarily, I wasn’t the least let down by the last paragraph – I assume it leads to a parallel universe scenario?

    I’d definitely keep reading from the 250 mark. After 500 I’d commit to another page, but being contemporary it would have to be grabby to raise the same level of interest and emotion as your first page.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sandra Coopersmith says:

    Well done, John! Great beginning, looking forward to reading more. What could be helpful to a new reader unfamiliar with the first book would be a brief prologue, not more than a page, summarizing the first book. Remember, the important thing is to WRITE, so don’t worry about getting things perfect at this point – that will come in the editing and rewrites but for now, just get it down. You pulled me in with your first sentence and kept the interest level up — however, as I said, a very brief prologue would be helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. deb potter says:

    Nice to be reading about a feisty female. All seems good to me until the dream ends and questions arise for me about whether she has left the princess in the woods alone to fend for herself or if she has actually left – or that it wasn’t actually real. I think that needs clearing up in the next paras quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. barbara says:

    You kept my interest all the way. I was surprised when we shifted into a backyard.

    Liked by 1 person

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