In William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, the main character of the eponymous title states “the play’s the thing” in order to bring to light the truth about his father’s murder. Well, the query’s the thing for writers to grab the attention of an editor or agent! When querying, the first few pages are key!
Writers often struggle with preparing a manuscript for an agent or publisher. Nowadays, email is the way of submitting a literary piece and the shorter and sweeter the query – the better! For starters, I needed a better beginning for my dark fantasy middle grade novel, Shoes, with hints of horror and the supernatural. The beginning was as stale and dry as four-days-past-the-sale-by-date opened bag of bread. Oh, not just stale, but stale and boring. It didn’t even have the problem of mold in its staleness to make it even a little interesting. I was in trouble and would have been rejected in record time by any prospective agent or editor.
But I hadn’t realized this error until I revisited the manuscript almost a year later.
So, after several days of thinking, reflecting, and brainstorming I all but smacked myself in the face when I realized the perfect beginning resided in my own childhood fears. Not fear from reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series or watching Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, but guttural, soul-shivering terror of the stories my Jamaican mother and Haitian father would sometimes share after dinner.
Perhaps because of the writer in me, my curiosity outweighed my fear and allowed me to listen, taking note of the interesting real-life characters and supernatural experiences of my parents in their birth countries.
Now that I’m an adult, I vividly see the frightening potential these tales of terror can offer. Here’s the revised beginning:
“Nothing to be afraid of,” Alexander promised himself. He pressed against the hallway wall, his gaze frozen on the wooden statue. Tongue glued to the roof of his cotton-dry mouth, he couldn’t speak anymore. Like Medusa turned onlookers to stone, the creepy statue that his Grandpa Jean gave to his family possessed the power to silence those who dared to stare and wonder about its purpose.
He swallowed hard and his throat burned. Fear always made him thirsty.
He hated the wooden statue, carved with beautiful African features, a wide brim hat, and almond shaped eyes, so detailed if you stared long enough he – the statue – seemed to blink and stare back.
Alexander wished the statue would topple over and break from the living room’s coffee table.
He remembered knocking it over once, hope burning inside him like a star that its gangly limbs would break off piece by piece from the assault. But to his shock and sadness, the statue remained intact. That day sealed his opinion of the thing. It was evil. Yup, no doubt about it.
He breathed in deeply, fidgeting with the buttons of his pajamas, closed his eyes and hurried pass the despised and prized piece of furniture to the quiet of his bedroom.
He slipped under the covers and buried his face beneath the sheets. For several meetings, he shivered as his body adjusted to the coldness of his bedroom, which was always at least ten degrees colder than any room in the house. His room most likely had some story of its own to tell, like that statue in the hallway. Someone had probably died here, he thought. Or worse, there’s a monster under the bed, like the scaly monster that rested its hand on your Aunt Nadine when Mom and her were kids.
Alexander clenched his teeth to stop the chattering of his teeth, which had nothing to do with the cold.
He shut his mind off from the terrible images playing in his mind and instead began counting sheep wearing polka dotted ties.
And slept . . .
Here’s the original beginning I had written:
Time and time again, Alexander Brennan’s mom told him he had an overactive imagination and right now it was his only source of comfort keeping him whole. Ever since his mother became ill, the real world slowly crumpled around him, threatening to crush him. His mother also told him that he fixated on useless things like quotes. Quotes like, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
When he first heard those words he wondered and wondered and wondered where they had come from. He wondered what they meant, rolling the idea around in his mind like a piece of candy. And then he wondered the opposite. What happens when an angel loses its wings? Does lightning strike? Does the earth shake?
And this particular afternoon, while walking home from school with his best friend, Dylan Perez, his overactive imagination caused him to obsess over yet another mundane and ordinary thing.
“Shoes,” Alexander said, pointing above. Dangling from the electrical wires hung a pair of black and white sneakers with silver stars.
Dylan looked uninterested, but he stopped to gaze up at the shoes. “Yeah, so. Some bully probably slung ‘em up there, man.” He gave an awkward shrug of his shoulders, weighed down by his backpack laden with books and school supplies. “Or, like my dad told me, people just toss ‘em up there because they can. Like a game to see if you can get the shoes to lock and hold. What’s the big deal?”
“Yeah, but that’s too simple an explanation. And you know better than anybody else that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. So wouldn’t it be weird and yet make more sense if the shoes were left as like a sign or something by an alien. You know, like maybe aliens abducted the kid who owned those shoes and left them there as proof of his conquest?”
Alexander burst into laughter at his idea. He laughed because it was funny. He laughed because a part of him wished that it was true. He stopped laughing when he noticed he was laughing alone.
Dylan shook his head slowly. “Lex, you seriously watch way too many sci-fi movies.” He shook his head again, trying to look stern and serious, but Alexander could tell he wanted to laugh. Dylan could be just as imaginative as he was. That was one of the reasons they had become quick friends in first grade and had remained friends almost 5 years ago. It was the first day of kindergarten and during free time, Alexander and Dylan played a game of The Teacher is an Alien. Sure, they got sent to time out (since they continued pretending even after free time was long over), but it was well worth it.
Alexander wasn’t looking forward to the first day of middle school and even though it was a couple of days away, the thought of possibly being separated from Dylan made his stomach hurt.
Which one is better? Which one do you prefer and why? Sound off in the comments. 3-2-1 – GO!