Pub Rants

Opening Pages (cont.)

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STATUS: It’s late. Chutney is curled up on the couch cushion behind my back. She has her nose resting on my shoulder. Unasked is the question of when I plan to stop working tonight.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? Nothing at the moment.

Back in 2007, I went out on submission with a YA novel from an established author. In fact, it was her fourth novel (but her first with me as her agent). It was an option book that her then publisher had declined to take on.

It’s a tough space for an author to be in.

But I loved the novel. It has two protagonists with the story told in revolving first person POVs. One character white; the other not.

A fact Walker Books did not shy away from on the cover.

Bless them.

A lot of publishers said PERFECT CHEMISTRY didn’t feel “big” enough. In retrospect, I could see where they were coming from because the novel is basically a romance—a retelling of West Side Story set in a contemporary Chicago High School.

But I think what those publishers forgot was how a great romance (well told) could really hook readers and sell like crazy.

And the opening pages are what sold me initially. For this blog entry, I’m giving you the opening pages of the novel itself as well as the opening pages for the first shift in POV to the other main narrator on page 6.

Chapter 1

Everyone knows I’m perfect. My life is perfect. My clothes are perfect. Even my family is perfect. And although it’s a complete lie, I’ve worked my butt off to keep up the appearance that I have it all. The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image.

Standing in front of my bathroom mirror while the new Linkin Park CD blares from my stereo, I wipe away the third crooked line I’ve drawn beneath my eye. My hands are shaking, damn it. Starting senior year of high school and seeing my boyfriend after a summer apart shouldn’t be so nerve wracking, but I’ve gotten off to a disastrous start.

First, my curling iron sent up smoke signals and died. Then the button on my fave shirt popped off. Now, my liquid eyeliner decides it has a mind of its own. If I had any choice in the matter, I’d stay in my comfy bed and eat warm chocolate chip cookies all day.

“Brit, come down,” I faintly hear my mom yelling from the foyer.

My first instinct is to ignore her, but that never gets me anything but arguments, headaches and more yelling.

“I’ll be there in a sec,” I call down, hoping I can get this liquid eyeliner to go on straight and be done with it.

Finally getting it right, I toss the eyeliner tube on the counter, double and triple check myself in the mirror, turn off my stereo and hurry down the hallway.

My mom is standing at the bottom of our grand staircase, scanning my attire. I straighten. I know, I know. I’m eighteen and shouldn’t care what my mom thinks. But you haven’t lived in the Ellis house. My mom has anxiety. Not the kind easily controlled with little white pills. And when my mom is stressed, everyone living with her suffers. I think that’s why my dad goes to work before she gets up in the morning, so he doesn’t have to deal with, well, her.

“Hate the pants, love the belt,” Mom says, pointing her index finger at each item. “And that noise you call music was giving me a headache. Thank goodness it’s off.”

“Good morning to you, too, Mother,” I say before walking down the stairs and giving her a peck on the cheek. The smell of my mom’s strong perfume stings my nostrils the closer I get. She already looks like a million bucks in her Ralph Lauren Blue Label tennis dress. No one can point a finger and criticize her attire, that’s for sure.

“I bought your favorite muffin for the first day of school,” Mom says, pulling a bag out from behind her back.

“No, thanks,” I say, looking around for my sister. “Where’s Shelley?”

“In the kitchen.”

“Is her new caretaker here yet?”

“Her name is Baghda, and no. She’s coming in an hour.”

“Did you tell her wool irritates her skin? And that she pulls hair?” It’s better to avoid disasters than letting them happen on their own. Disasters in my house are about as pretty as a car wreck.

“Yes. And yes. I gave your sister an earful this morning, Brittany. If she keeps acting up, we’ll find ourselves out of another caretaker.”

I walk into the kitchen, not wanting to hear my mother go on and on about her theories of why Shelley lashes out. Shelley is sitting at the table in her wheelchair, busily eating her specially blended food because, even at the age of twenty, my sister doesn’t have the ability to chew and swallow like people without her physical limitations. As usual, the food has found its way onto her chin, lips and cheeks.

“Hey, Shell-bell,” I say, leaning over her and wiping her face with a napkin. “It’s the first day of school. Wish me luck.”

Shelley holds jerky arms out and gives me a lopsided smile. I love that smile.

“You want to give me a hug?” I ask her, knowing she does. The doctors always tell us the more interaction Shelley gets the better off she’ll be.

Shelley looks up, signaling the word for yes. I fold myself in her arms, careful to keep her hands away from my hair. I have no clue why, lately, she’s fixated on pulling hair. Is it the texture she craves?

When I straighten, my mom gasps. It sounds to me like a referee’s whistle, halting my life. “Brit, you can’t go to school like that.”

“Like what?”

She shakes her head and sighs in frustration. “Look at your shirt.”

Glancing down, I see a large wet spot on the front of my white Calvin Klein shirt. Oops. Shelley’s drool. One look at my sister’s drawn face tells me what she can’t easily put into words. Shelley is sorry. Shelley didn’t mean to mess up my outfit.

“It’s no biggie,” I tell her, although in the back on my mind I know it screws up my ‘perfect’ look.

Frowning, my mom wets a paper towel at the sink and dabs at the spot. It makes me feel like a two-year-old.

“Go upstairs and change.”

“Mom, it was just peaches,” I say, treading carefully so this doesn’t turn into a full blown yelling match. The last thing I want to do is make my sister feel bad.

And skipping several pages now and going to the next chapter….

Chapter 2

“Get up, Alex.”

I scowl at my little brother and bury my head under my pillow. Since I share a room with my eleven and fifteen-year-old brothers, there’s no escape except the little privacy a lone pillow can give.

“Leave me alone, Luis,” I say roughly through the pillow. “No estés chingando.”

“I’m not fuckin’ with you. Mamá told me to wake you so you won’t be late for school.”

Senior year. I should be proud I’ll be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life will start. College is just a dream. Senior year for me is like a retirement party for a sixty-five-year-old. You know you can do more, but everyone expects you to quit.

“I’m all dressed in my new clothes,” Luis’ proud but muffled voice comes through the pillow. “The nenas won’t be able to resist this Latino stud.”

“Good for you,” I mumble.

“Mamá said I should pour this pitcher of water on you if you don’t get up.”

Was privacy too much to ask for? I take my pillow and chuck it across the room. It’s a direct hit. The water splashes all over him.

“Culero!” he screams at me. “These are the only new clothes I got.”

A fit of laughter is coming from the bedroom door. Carlos, my other brother, is laughing like a frickin’ hyena. That is, until Luis jumps him. I watch the fight spiral out of control as my younger brothers punch and kick each other.

They’re good fighters I think proudly as I watch them duke it out. But as the oldest male in the house, it’s my duty to break it up. I grab the collar of Carlos’ shirt, but trip on Luis’ leg and land on the floor with them.

Before I can regain my balance, icy cold water is poured on my back. Turning quickly, I catch mi′amá dousing us all, a bucket poised in her fist above us.

“Get up,” she orders, her fiery attitude out in full force.

“Shit, Ma,” Carlos says, standing.

Our ma takes what’s left in her bucket, sticks her fingers in the icy water, and flicks the liquid in Carlos’ face.

Luis laughs and before he knows it, he gets flicked with water as well. Will they ever learn?

“Any more attitude, Luis?” she asks.

“No, ma’am,” Luis says, standing as straight as a soldier.

“You have any more filthy words to come out of that boca of yours, Carlos?” She dips her hand in the water as a warning.

“No, ma’am,” echoes soldier number two.

“And what about you, Alejandro?” Her eyes narrow into slits as she focuses on me.
“What? I was tryin’ to break it up,” I say innocently, giving her the you-can’t-resist-me smile.

She flicks water in my face. “That’s for not breaking it up sooner. Now get dressed, all of you, and come eat breakfast before school.”

So much for the you-can’t-resist-me smile. “You know you love us,” I call after her as she leaves our room.

28 Responses

  1. Brittany said:

    I love that book. I bought and read it several times and then I found it on audible… I hate to admit I’ve listened to it three times already. I have a life… I promise.

  2. Quill2006 said:

    I find it amazing that Simone Elkeles’ publisher didn’t want Perfect Chemistry; at the school library I’m student teaching at, the book has been #1 in the top ten checkouts for months. The school owns 27 copies, and they fly off the shelves despite the fact that quite a few kids have already read it. Twice.

    It does help that the school is in the north Chicago suburbs, not terribly far away from where the novel is set, but the book’s writing is what really makes it shine.

    I read it before I started student teaching after the head librarian told me how much the students liked it. I thought I wouldn’t be very interested in the story, because I’ve read so many teen love stories, and the formula doesn’t change much. But Perfect Chemistry blew me away. The characters, who could have been plastic and stereotypical, were real, and the book was impossible to put down.

  3. Anonymous said:

    I generally find YA stuff rather cloying. I didn’t make it through the first chapter before losing interest. I decided to give the second a shot, and found I really liked it. I wish the best of luck to the author – perhaps only half of the narration was of interest to me, but that’s a great deal more than most other YA books I’ve read since I was twelve.

  4. MeganRebekah said:

    I **love** this book!! I must have read and re-read it a dozen times or more, to the point that I probably have some of the passages memorized. Simone did such an amazing job with the characters.
    And the cover is amazing as well.

    I know books are subjective, but this one is perfectly captured, it’s hard for me to imagine an editor passing on it.

    I can’t wait for the sequel!

  5. Indigo said:

    I knew I wanted to read this book before. Now I’m certain. Thanks for taking a chance on what sounds like a wonderful romance in the making. Indigo

  6. Anonymous said:

    This is a perfect example of hooking a reader. This wasn’t a book I was interested in, not because I thought it would’ve been bad or anything, but simply because it wasn’t a genre I normally read. But wow. Those pages. I’m awestruck. Truly awestruck. I added it to my wishlist the second I finished the sample.

    (Please, Kristin, I’m begging you. My wishlist is getting out of control! No more awesome writing samples).

  7. Bee said:

    Perfect Chemistry’s got awesome opening pages. Grabs the reader’s attention at the first go *goes to buy the book*

  8. Stephanie said:

    I’m thankful you recommended this book. I saw it the other day, and almost purchased it. Don’t know why I passed on it. It reminded me in some ways of the movie “Crazy/Beautiful,” which I think is great. I think I’ll go back to Target this weekend and get it.

  9. Michelle said:

    I LOVE this book and Simone Elkeles. I bet they regret turning it down now. Everyone who has read this book has had only great things to say about it. Like you mentioned, a great romance story really does drawn the reader in.

  10. Sarah Laurenson said:

    Strictly speaking, I’m not into romance. This is excellent! I love the two voices. I’m very drawn into both of their stories and I feel like I know them already. Great 3-D characters in so few words.

    Feels like this would be a great warm fuzzy book with depth.

  11. Yvonne said:

    Hot cover!! Totally drawn in to these two families.
    Gives me hope for a similar setup–two protagonists with shifting pov’s. Now I’m not saying…

  12. KBKnowles said:

    Perfect Chemistry is a recent fave of mine! It immediately caught my eye at the bookstore because 1) it showed humans on the cover, and 2) the humans were not white people with their faces obscured.

    I’m an ESL teacher and I loved that it showed both perspectives because Alex and Brittany could have been plucked directly from our halls and we so rarely hear from the Alexes.

    In this instance, I liked that it wasn’t too “big.” Occasionally kids just want a good romance involving kids who look/sound/feel like them. It doesn’t have to be the next major statement on race and ethnicity in America.

    My WIP involves a relationship between a Muslim boy and non-Muslim girl. While the cultural comparisons are there, I often have to resist the urge to get preachy. I can hear my students’ voices when I’m writing, “Ok, we get it, not all Muslims are extremists…now when do we get to the kissing?”

  13. A.L. Sonnichsen said:

    Hi Kristin,
    I know part of the reason you write a regular blog is to educate writers, so I humbly have a question to ask about first pages. However, I have to preface it by saying I think the examples you’ve given us are amazing. Thank you so much for posting them.

    My question is about back-story and showing vs. telling in first pages, because I’ve always heard that these are big no-nos. (I’ll use this particular novel as an example, but I feel like I see this a lot in published novels where the author does tell instead of show and does give backstory, and it still works.) In this example, the first paragraph when she talks about being perfect and then a later paragraph when she describes her mother both seem to tell a lot … So here’s my question: when is it okay to let a character tell about him/herself? Why did this particular example not make you, as an agent, stop reading? Is it because it’s so well-written? Or does an excellent writer know instinctively how much to tell (a little narrative to get an idea of the voice, but not too much)? Or, maybe I don’t understand what telling vs. showing really is?

    Thank you for your help! I sincerely appreciate it.


  14. Lyn Miller-Lachmann said:

    Congratulations on Perfect Chemistry making the ALA Quick Picks list! I read this book and would have reread it had I not loaned it to someone who never returned it. I liked that Elkeles was able to create two distinct and believable voices. But even more than the great voices illustrated here, the novel has the most perfect pacing, so you start reading and then can’t put it down.

  15. Smooth Tommy said:

    Ugh. I was curious enough to read the entire passage, but how cheesy. I cringed the entire time. It was like watching an episode of Full House. Have mercy.

  16. Pamela said:

    Thanks for a great blog.

    The opening to this book is fabulous; I’m hooked already and want to read more!

    Hmm, back to editing my writing in hopes of accomplishing what this book does so well.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Great hero.

    (((groan))) But, just another cynical YA heroine whose mother doesn’t understand.


  18. Jeannie said:

    I love, love this book. I’m a high school librarian and since I recommended this book to one student it has been out constantly.