Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July Secret Agent #38

GENRE: Young Adult Historical

Jan woke to the dim blue light before dawn. He lay, gazing at the just-visible ceiling, remembering the day before.

It was when he turned over and pulled the covers tight that he sensed it; the sense of something wrong. He could smell it, feel it; heavy and prickling like a rough wool blanket.

But not warm.

Fumbling back the covers, he scrambled out of bed and grabbed for his slippers, scared without knowing why.

Soft footsteps tapped outside the door. The knob turned, and his mother entered, her face hidden in the shadows. He smelled the faint scent of coffee as she came toward him, put her arms around him, kissed his cheek. "Happy birthday, Jan."

She hadn't held him like that since he was eight years old. Then her touch had been all he needed to drive away the nightmare.

Now it only made him more afraid.

He pushed her away. "Mum. What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry." Her voice wobbled. "I don't think we can have your party."

"What is it? What happened?"

Her whisper shivered through the air. "The Germans have invaded. Crossed the border at Maastricht and are coming into the country. Our army is fighting them..." He heard her swallow. "Come on, sweetheart. We can't do anything. We...let's eat breakfast. I made pancakes..."

Only half-hearing her words, he yanked open his wardrobe, wriggled into trousers, pulled a
shirt over his head.


  1. I really liked this. Normally, it is a mistake to start a book where the MC is alone, thinking, but I think it is so short (Before he is not longer alone) to worry about it. I like the story line so far. It humanizes the time period. The boy can't have a birthday party because the Nazis are invading. Great!

  2. I'm never too crazy about stories starting with the MC waking up but I think it works all right here. There's one or two places where there's a bit of filtering, e.g.

    "He smelled the faint scent of coffee."

    Another suggestion, you tell us that he's scared ... how about showing us? Perhaps he has a fluttering in his stomach, his hands are clammy, etc.

    Otherwise, I think it's a good start. I'd want to keep reading.

  3. I think the tension at the begining is excellent, and I like the way your writing style really shines through. I was excited as I read to try and find out what was going on. I would definatly read on!

  4. Although starting a story with the MC in bed can feel a bit cliche, I think it works here because there's a lot of inbuilt tension. However, I did wonder how he sensed (and smelled) the tension without any obvious indicators. Perhaps, if the scene started with his mom's entrance, her body language/actions would be strong cues.

    I love the setting and the immediate tension of the Nazis invading on his birthday.

    I would definitely keep reading.

  5. Why tell us he was remembering the day before if you're not going to tell us about the day before? Perhaps just say he woke up sensing something was wrong.

    You might also have Mom say the Germans are coming before she says happy birthday or that they can't have his party. As I read, I kept wondering why Mom is waking him up before dawn to say happy birthday and that he couldn't have his party. Once we know the Germans are coming, it makes more sense, so saying that first would eliminate any confusion.

    I also wondered how she knew the Germans were coming. Seems she would have been asleep all night and wouldn't have known until she woke up and perhaps turned on a radio, so again, why she is awake before dawn comes into play. Does she normally awake that early? I think you need to say why she's up.

  6. I love historical fiction about World War-II in Europe. The very beginning could have been any sort of book, and then you dropped the proverbial bombshell - the Germans have invaded. I loved it.

    Having said that, I've heard it's not a great idea to start a book with your main character first waking up. It didn't bother me all that much. I agreed with Barbara regarding mentioning the day before. If it's just an aside, I'd drop it.

    One thing, though, is there a way you can hint at Jan's age - maybe the decoration in his room (not sure what it would be during this era). I'm curious because I can't tell if this would be YA or MG historical fiction. Birthday parties don't feel very YA to me, but this was a different era.

  7. I've read a bunch of agent blogs that say they won't read any further if a book starts with the main character waking up.

    But you can fix this issue quite easily. For example, if you started the book "It was when Jan turned over and pulled the covers tight that he sensed it..."

    That way, the character is right where you want him to be, but we avoid the dreaded "MC wakes up" problem. :)

  8. I like the MCs problem -- no party -- being part and parcel of the larger problem -- invasion. But something about this scene, the dialogue, or maybe the mom waking him up to tell him no party, just didn't feel real to me. I can't put my finger on it. Sorry.

  9. I had no problem with the waking up thing, but I don't think a blanket analogy is the best thing to use when he's actually lying in a bed. I was picturing him with a physical wool blanket at first.

    It feels a bit of a shift to have her saying 'happy birthday' one minute and 'the Germans have invaded' the next. He's obviously not going to have a happy birthday. Could she just come in and hug him and have her first words be the apology?

    I do want to read more though, but these things tripped me up a bit.

  10. Thanks a ton for all the comments! Great thoughts, everyone. Especially since I've struggled with the opening for this novel... this was very helpful.

    The "day before" is actually incredibly important, and it's revealed in the next few paragraphs (his father was called into the army, which is why his mother knew about the invasion, etc) - but I;m wondering if I should bring that even farther forward: perhaps announce the departure of his father in the first few sentences...

    Anyway, thanks so much for the comments!

  11. As your opening is currently constructed, I don't think it makes sense to have him waking up remembering the day before. It feels out of place in the passage.

    There are a few other phrases that seemed out of place to me. "But not warm" doesn't seem to need it's own paragraph. It could easily be the end of the preceding paragraph. Also, "smelled the faint scent of coffee" seems a bit redundant.

    Some people have commented on how the dialogue is ordered. I think it's great the way it is. To me, the mother is speaking reticently, like she doesn't want to be the bearer of bad news.

    Overall, I liked it and would have read more.

  12. I liked this and the concept of seeing this through this boy's eyes. I have heard the same thing about not starting the book with the character waking up - and I like the idea of something relating to his father leaving that was in an earlier comment - that seems like a better start to this - would have real emotional impact. And I think I would be drawn in even more with that. i also agree with the comment that a birthday party seems a bit young for YA - I know it was a simpler time but you may need to deal with that somehow - and i wasnt sure how old he is yet - may be coming...

  13. Thanks for the comments!

    I think I'll rework the opening (yet again!) based on these suggestions. :) Jan is 14 (which comes out also in the next few paragraphs) and the party is a special event, which is also explained shortly. Are those details off-putting, tho? Do they raise enough questions to turn you off the story? Wondering if I should work through the opening to include some more of that information...

    Thanks again - a lot!

  14. Nina: I think reworking the beginning might be a good thing, and you've certainly got a lot of great comments here to go from. If the main issue from a few days ago is that Jan's father was called away, then perhaps that would be a stronger opening? It would lay the groundwork (even before the news of the invasion), that this wasn't to be the happiest of birthdays. Just another thought for you as you continue working on this.
    Good luck!

  15. My original opening did indeed start the day before, so I think now I'll go back, use that one, and just touch it up a little. *whew* Amazing, the entire novel's been edited for months, but I keep playing with the opening! :)