Wednesday, May 14, 2014

May Secret Agent #13

TITLE: Flame
GENRE: Young Adult/Mystery

October 1977

From the first moment I saw him, I wanted Denny Beech. Tall and lean, his wheat-colored hair curled over the collar of his blue shirt, while a spiral of smoke drifted from the side of his mouth. I pictured those lips pressed against mine and shivered, despite the heat.

Not quite 9 p.m., the patio thermostat read 78 degrees. At least the Santa Ana winds had softened. A film of ash from the brush fire east of town coated the walkway and the air smelled of wood smoke. Andie and I paused to inspect our reflections in the sliding glass door. I centered my necklace between my breasts and Andie fluffed her hair. Kim Bellman's parents traveled a lot and she hosted most of the parties. We all wished the Bellmans would adopt us.

A quick crowd scan told me I knew everybody in the backyard -- except for one. Most of us had grown up together. A few people joined our bunch when we entered high school, but by junior year our set didn't welcome many new faces. This face demanded welcome. Not a pretty boy, age had already burned away the puppy fat to show off high cheekbones and a strong jaw.

I pulled a cigarette from my purse and nodded toward the newcomer. "Who's that?"

"Nice to know someone can still catch your eye." Andie flicked her lighter.

Having singed my hair on more than one occasion, I pulled back my waist-length mane before bending to the flame.


  1. The details of this excerpt really draw me in. I can smell the heat, cigarettes and alcohol. And I love the first line!
    I'm not sure of the MC's age yet, but I'm guessing that comes within the next couple of pages. Late teens?
    The only line I'd question is the last one about burning her hair. From the first few paragraphs she sounds so precise and controlled, she doesn't sound like someone who'd be so careless as to singe her hair lighting a cigarette.
    Really enjoyed this!

  2. The first paragraph draws right in! Straight and to the point. The only suggestion I'd make is to say: "Tall and lean, wheat-colored hair curling over the collar of his blue shirt, a spiral of smoke drifting from the side of his mouth.

    The transition from the first paragraph to the second needed a little something, if only "It was not quite 9 p.m. The patio thermostat read 78 degrees." Adding "It was" keeps us in the moment of meeting this boy she just had to have.

    The rest of it is very nicely written! Good set-up of the scene, the "bunch." Lotta smoking, though. Do all high school kids smoke these days?

  3. I LOVE your voice. Beautiful opening details and language. You set the scene with what is, in my opinion, a masterful combination of inner narrative and external action. And in less than 250 words we see the MC’s regular life interrupted by the arrival of a rugged newcomer. Intrigue! I can feel the story starting already…

    Really the only thing I would nit-pick at are the first three (well, the second and third) sentences of the second paragraph. I’m always wary of books that open with the weather/landscape description, and though these details set the scene, I think the opening would be more gripping if they came later. Even just a couple of sentences later—maybe after Andie (great name, btw) pauses to fluff her hair. You could easily add something about the humidity or whatever effect 78 degrees and Santa Ana wind has on Andie’s hair.

    Great work! Good luck with this :)

  4. I really liked this one. This is precisely the kind of story and voice I lapped up in my teens :) Even now I'd keep reading to know more.

    Just a few comments:

    The first two paragraphs start the same -- modifying clause (is that what it's called), comma, main thought. It sounded repetitive to me.

    I like how you set the scene with the weather, the heat, the smells.

    The line "This face demanded welcome" threw me off at first and pulled me out of the story. I don't know what I'd replace it with -- maybe something more mundane, like "So who was the new guy/stranger?"

    I also would drop the line about singeing her hair, and just start with "I pulled." (And maybe since it's the second use of "pulled" in a short space replace one of them.)

    Well done, and I hope to read more!

  5. Ohh, I like where this ends off with "him" being gone. Already incites the longing I'm anticipating I'll feel.

    I think a lot of this works especially the dance aspects and the head down and the seeking quiet and peace. Because we as readers find out why so soon I think it really works in these first 250 words.

  6. Overall, good writing, but I have a few suggestions. This part: "Most of us had grown up together. A few people joined our bunch when we entered high school, but by junior year our set didn't welcome many new faces" isn't really necessary, and kind of interrupts the flow. Also, it's a bit jarring because you start off describing the first time she sees Denny, but then you're repeating yourself here describing him again.

    Really, I think you can just say: "A quick crowd scan told me I knew everybody in the backyard -- except for one." and then go right into "I pulled a cigarette..." That, to me, would make this a lot crisper.

    I agree that the 'having singed my hair' line can go. Not really relevant, doesn't give us any insight into the character.

  7. I liked this and thought it conveyed a lot. I agree with EHayes above, in that you don't need the bit about their crowd in parg 3.

    I liked the opening parg, but after you tell us about her liking this guy, you go to the next parg and start all over, like she's hasn't met him yet.

    I'd suggest not starting over.
    Perhaps cut that first parg, which is telling us what you show us later, (and you could some of it at that point) and start with parg 2, but rather than go into description, make it evident right away that she's at a party.

    And I agree about cutting the singed hair. It seems it's there just so you can get in how long her hair was.

  8. Thanks so much everyone. I've been trimming/revising to sharpen the scene -- and it's much stronger for it. I really appreciate your feedback.

  9. I insanely love the entire first paragraph. The wheat colored hair and the curled over the collar created an immediate image--and a 70s image. So good!

    This entry reads really well with a ton of voice. Just a few things tripped me up:

    The use of breasts jumped out at me; I'm not afraid of this word used in YA though it does often conjure a sexual tone, and wondering if the word is used intentionally here as they're primping for a party. Hmmm...I'm still leaning toward changing it, though I tend to support using accurate terminology over slang unless there's a reason. It just kind of stuck out to me is tonally off here.

    I love the line "This face demanded welcome." and the phrase "burned away the puppy fat" AWESOME.

    Love how it's revealed she maybe isn't so expert considering the singed hair. Though the word "mane" for hair to me conjures images of Sweet Valley High level writing (as does "tresses"). Can you just say hair?

    Overall, nice job! I think it's great you have a mystery hook since near-historical era YA can be a little tough unless there's a good reason they are set in the specific timeframe (I've learned this the hard way, take my word!)

  10. I love the writing here. I think it's sharp and stringent, and in a few lines sets up not just a scene but a history. The brush fire on the Santa Ana winds is such a superb detail, and we get a sense of who this girl is and how she fits into her world almost immediately.

    My one note is that it isn't clear, at least initially, whether the new face in question belongs to Denny Beech. When Andie says "Nice to know someone can still catch your eye," my first thought was "But hasn't Denny Beech caught her eye already?" I thought the narrator's crush on Denny was a long-standing truth before this party, and now someone new had come on the scene. Perhaps include some indication in the first or second paragraph that we're about to learn how she met the infamous Denny?

    Wonderful set up, though. I'd be eager to read more.