A flask with a gold liquid is mounted between mystic symbols

The publisher for The Alchemyst by Michael Scott really wants us to know it features Nicolas Flamel. The book’s full title is The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.* The first sentence of the advertising copy on Amazon is “Nicholas Flamel appeared in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter—but did you know he really lived?”

This book has no relationship to Harry Potter. Nicolas Flamel may have been a plot point in the first Harry Potter book, but he was a real-life medieval alchemist, so anyone can write about him. But maybe you could forget that part until after you buy this book?

Alright, Scott, I have your book. Tell me about Mr. Flamel.

Bragging Doesn’t Make a Great Teaser

It feels like every YA book these days has an epistolary teaser up front. Let’s look at this one.

I am legend.

Death has no claim over me, illness cannot touch me. […]

I have been many things in my time: a physician and a cook, a bookseller and a soldier, a teacher of languages and chemistry, both an officer of the law and a thief.

But before all these I was an alchemyst. I was the Alchemyst.

Whoa dude, that’s a lot of tooting your own horn. I suppose some people who love candied wish fulfillment might go for this, but even if that’s the intent, another character should write it. That way Nicholas could act appealingly humble while he goes about being a badass. Putting it in his voice means that he not only has boatloads of candy, but he’s also arrogant.

I was acknowledged as the greatest Alchemyst of all, sought after by kings and princes, by emperors and even the Pope himself. I could turn ordinary metal into gold, I could change common stones into precious jewels. More than this: I discovered the secret of Life Eternal hidden deep in a book of ancient magic.

I feel like I’ve made the mistake of asking an entitled old white guy a polite question, and now I’m nodding mechanically and desperately searching for an escape route as he drones on about his glory days.

Also, Nicholas discovered the secret to eternal life in a magic book? That’s disappointing. Since he’s the Alchemyst, I naturally assumed he devised it himself with alchemy.

At least since this passage is so glowing, it’s probably the lead up to a big downfall. Gimme.

Now my wife, Perenelle, has been kidnapped and the book stolen.

Nicholas, damseling your wife is not going to make up for all that bragging. I was thinking more along the lines of “in my arrogance I went too far; lost my power, riches, and respect; and now eternity has become a curse.”

Without the book, she and I will age. Within the full cycle of the moon, we will wither and die.

I’ve got another idea. Since Perenelle is probably in the same place as the book, she can use it to continue living. If she likes you more than I do, maybe she’ll save you. As a treat.

And if we die, then the evil we have so long fought against will triumph. The Elder Race will reclaim this Earth again, and they will wipe humanity from the face of this planet.

WTF? Where did these villains come from? Nicholas, I think you left something out of that embellished summary of your life. You know, the part where you became a bottle stopper for evil.

These epic-level stakes should make me care more, but placed like this, it’s not having much effect. It feels like a contrived way to justify why these two people are so important and give Nicholas even more candy. But it’s still a hook at least, and perhaps it will work better for other readers.

But I will not go down without a fight.

For I am the immortal Nicholas Flamel.

Yeah, I got that part, buddy.

That should be the end, but because these teasers have to be epistolary, let’s see the citation.

From the Day Booke of Nicholas Flamel, Alchemyst
Writ this day, Thursday, 31st May, in
San Francisco, my adopted city

This is supposedly a journal entry. I love the idea that Nicholas writes in his daily journal like this:

May 29th: Today Perenelle and I visited the annual garden show looking for a rare flower…

May 30th: It would have been a productive day in my study if not for the constant interruptions of my new assistant…

May 31st: I am legend. Death has no claim over me, illness cannot touch me…

The only thing weirder would be writing entries like this teaser every day. Imagine Flamel has spent hundreds of years filling journals with daily essays on how amazing he is.

Look, if you don’t want to write epistolary narration, don’t write epistolary narration. It’s tricky and comes with a lot of constraints, so it won’t pay off unless you put in the work to make it feel genuine. This could have been regular first person. If it really needs to be epistolary, it could have been written by an outside storyteller who has a reason for dramatic embellishment.

Stay Close to the Action

Next, there’s a page that says “Thursday, 31st May.” Maybe that means the first chapter takes place on that day.

I’ve decided the first sentence of chapter one best qualifies as the opening sentence, so let’s have a look at it.

“Okay—answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?” Sophie Newman pressed her fingers against the Blue-tooth earpiece as she spoke.

Generally, I recommend against starting with dialogue because it’s disorienting. I think Scott has managed to avoid that pitfall, but dialogue was still a bad choice. The phone call makes this mildly curious situation feel remote and unimportant. Sophie Newman isn’t directly looking at or dealing with the person wearing a suspicious overcoat; she’s relating it second hand to someone who isn’t present. Two out of five stars.

In other news, Sophie Newman is notably not Nicholas Flamel. Since everything else about the book is practically screaming this guy’s name, and he has the big plot hook in the teaser, I was not expecting that. I didn’t like Flamel anyway, but if you did, too bad. You gotta read about Sophie’s phone conversation instead.

On the other side of the continent, her fashion-conscious friend Elle inquired matter-of-factly, “What sort of coat?”

Is this character on the other side of the continent actually going to be involved in the story? I’ll give Scott the benefit of the doubt and say the protagonists will travel to her later, and he wants to introduce her early so she doesn’t pop out of nowhere. But the opening passages are incredibly important; surely Elle’s introduction can wait. Then, Sophie could be doing something instead of just talking on the phone.

Scott is also introducing Elle by telling instead of showing. If he wanted to communicate she’s fashion conscious, she should mention some types of coats that a fashion aficionado would know about.

Example

“That depends. Are we talking about a trench coat, a peacoat, a parka, or something else? Is it single-breasted or double-breasted?”

This also makes Elle sound matter-of-fact, because she’s treating this situation like an intellectual curiosity and not like something that’s truly strange.

Wiping her hands on the cloth tucked into her apron strings, Sophie moved out from behind the counter of the empty coffee shop and stepped up to the window, watching men emerge from the car across the street. “Heavy black wool overcoats. They’re even wearing black gloves and hats. And sunglasses.” She pressed her face against the glass. “Even for this city, that’s just a little too weird.”

I don’t know who these dapper goth folks could be other than the villains, which isn’t great. This portrayal is comical, not intimidating, particularly since Sophie is peeping at them from a safe distance and calling them weird. Instead, why aren’t they coming into her coffee shop? If she had to make these strange customers happy, that would make a much stronger opening scene.

Scott is still telling readers what the villains look like through Sophie’s dialogue instead of describing them directly. While I’ve seen this technique put to good use, here it’s only creating distance and reducing immersion. This isn’t helping them feel threatening.

“Maybe they’re undertakers?” Elle suggested, her voice popping and clicking on the cell phone. Sophie could hear something loud and dismal playing in the background—Lacrimosa maybe, or Amorphis. Elle had never quite got over her Goth phase.

Scott, you have more important things to do right now than characterizing someone who’s on the other side of the continent. At the least, you could characterize Sophie. So far, I can only describe her by what she is not: not goth, not a fashion nerd, and not as weird as many others in what is probably San Francisco. Now that I say all that, it’s pretty disappointing. Maybe Elle could be here instead.

“Maybe,” Sophie answered, sounding unconvinced. She’d been chatting on the phone with her friend when, a few moments earlier, she’d spotted the unusual-looking car. It was long and sleek and looked as if it belonged in an old black-and-white movie. As it drove past the window, sunlight reflected off the blacked-out windows, briefly illuminating the interior of the coffee shop in warm yellow-gold light, blinding Sophie. Blinking away the black spots dancing before her eyes, she watched as the car turned at the bottom of the hill and slowly returned. Without signaling, it pulled over directly in front of The Small Book Shop, right across the street.

My distinguished guests, I present to you the backstory of the villains’ arrival on this street. Does it change anything about this situation? No. If it did, would it make sense to relay it later like this instead of narrating it in the opening? No. Does it make these goofy villains look more intimidating or even less goofy? Not in the least. But it is… something. And that’s something.

The next several paragraphs are spent with Elle asking if they might be mafia or if they might just be cold. Naturally, Sophie discounts these ideas. She spends a whole paragraph describing how it’s a hot afternoon. None of this is new, remarkable, or moves the scene forward.

Finally, Scott delivers some direct description of these coat people.

The rear door opened and another man, even larger than the first two, climbed stiffly out of the car. As he closed the door, sunlight briefly touched his face and Sophie caught a glimpse of pale, unhealthy-looking gray-white skin. She adjusted the volume on the earpiece. “OK. You should see what just climbed out of the car. A huge guy with gray skin. Gray. That might explain it; maybe they have some type of skin condition.”

We learn just one new piece of information here – the gray skin. Then after Scott describes it, we have to listen to Sophie repeat it to Elle. Then we get another possible explanation that we already know is wrong, since we’re speculative fiction fans.

Despite the presence of what are probably villains in this scene, Scott seems to be making a concerted effort to suck as much excitement out of it as possible.

After another unimportant line of dialogue, Scott describes one more dude.

A fourth figure stepped out of the car.

He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight ponytail, while a neat triangular beard, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. He moved away from the car and stepped under the striped awning that covered the trays of books outside the shop. When he picked up a brightly colored paperback and turned it over in his hands, Sophie noticed that he was wearing gray gloves. A pearl button at the wrist winked in the light.

That’s a large paragraph devoted to describing this one guy, but he actually looks less remarkable than the others. This doesn’t give readers much reason to remember what could be an important character. In most cases it would make more sense to describe him first, but the unusual look of his fellows is the only thing this scene has going for it. Instead, I might make him more memorable by having him take more interesting actions.

This description could also be condensed down, requiring less patience from readers.

Example

A small man in an old-fashioned three-piece suit stepped out of the car. His iron-gray hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, while a neat triangular beard concealed the mouth and chin of his angular face. He stepped toward the book trays outside the shop and picked up a yellow paperback with gloves that matched the charcoal of his suit. At the glove’s wrist, a pearl button winked in the light.

It’s possible that this is Nicholas Flamel, and the other guys are his loyal constructs or servants instead of villainous minions. That would partly explain why so little is happening in this scene. But even an innocent misunderstanding could easily have more conflict and tension than this.

“They’re going into the bookshop,” she said into her earpiece.

“Is Josh still working there?” Elle immediately asked.

Sophie ignored the sudden interest in her friend’s voice. The fact that her best friend liked her twin brother was just a little too weird. “Yeah. I’m going to call him to see what’s up. I’ll call you right back.”

Another important character is at the bookshop? Why didn’t we just open with him? Or if he isn’t a viewpoint character, how about if he works at the coffee shop and Sophie works at the bookstore? Or they both work at the bookstore? This fruit is hanging so low, it’s kissing the earth.

Also, Elle hardly needs a crush to be concerned whether Sophie’s brother is working at the bookshop these possible mafia members are heading into.

Stay in the Moment

For the rest of this scene, Sophie describes these strange men over the phone to Josh instead of Elle, including all of the garments Scott mentioned. Just kidding, the narration thankfully moves to Josh’s point of view.

But not before it spends another page with Sophie staring at these guys.

[…] she stared, fascinated, at the small man. There was something about him . . . something odd. Maybe he was a fashion designer, she thought, or a movie producer, or maybe he was an author—she’d noticed that some authors liked to dress up in peculiar outfits. She’d give him a few minutes to get into the shop, then she’d call her twin for a report.

Sophie was about to turn away when the gray man suddenly spun around and seemed to stare directly at her. As he stood under the awning, his face was in shadow, and yet for just the briefest instant, his eyes looked as if they were glowing.

Sophie knew—just knew—that there was no possible way for the small gray man to see her: she was standing on the opposite side of the street behind a pane of glass that was bright with reflected early-afternoon sunlight. She would be invisible in the gloom behind the glass.

The situation has escalated slightly from Sophie staring at them to one of them also staring at Sophie. Stares can be creepy, but I don’t think this fleeting glance is doing enough, particularly since it’s the climax of the scene. Instead, what if the scene opened as Sophie realized this dude’s gaze was following her as she moved around the coffee shop?

When I first read this excerpt, I naturally assumed the “gray man” was the big dude with the gray skin, not the small guy with normal skin but wearing a gray suit. Small dude’s forgettable appearance strikes again! Two paragraphs later, I finally discovered I’d been imagining the moment wrong. Very jarring.

The subtlety Scott is using for this stare suggests he wants the magic to be mysterious. Sophie sees the glowing eyes for only a brief instant, and she’s not sure they’re really glowing. If only he wasn’t hanging out with a gray-skinned dude wearing a black hat, gloves, wool coat, and sunglasses, it might have worked. These minions are too blatantly magical to pull off mysterious. At least the glowing eyes make suit guy a little more memorable.

This passage also has two instances of Sophie making conclusions because of a feeling – or Scott writes it like that’s what she’s doing. First, she thinks there’s “something” odd about suit guy; then, she “just knew” he shouldn’t be able to see her.

These types of gut decisions can be tricky to write for two reasons:

  1. It’s still important to show readers something that reasonably gives the viewpoint character this gut feeling. If you don’t, readers can’t feel it with your character, and it’s likely to come off as contrived or unbelievable. If this man in the three-piece-suit is supposed to feel more odd than a slightly eccentric rich guy, the description of him doesn’t convey that.*
  2. If you show why the viewpoint character feels the way they do and it’s too obvious, then the character’s failure to identify it will feel comical or contrived. Scott says Sophie “just knew” she isn’t visible through the glass, and then he thoroughly describes why she isn’t visible. That’s not a gut conclusion; that’s something she has consciously thought through.

What I’ve seen work is using the gut to judge something that’s very subjective. For instance, in Martha Well’s Raksura books, there’s a scene where the protagonist, Moon, feels like another person is lying. This is because the man answers questions a little too readily, as though he’s rehearsed them. Whether someone’s answers are too polished or given too quickly is very subjective, so it feels natural that Moon is relying on his gut to judge that. Since readers can imagine what a rehearsed answer sounds like, they can be on the same page with him.

After discussing the opacity of the window, Scott returns for another shot at making the stare feel creepy.

And yet in that single moment when their eyes met, Sophie felt the tiny hairs on the back of her hands and along her forearms tingle and felt a puff of cold air touch the back of her neck. She rolled her shoulders, turning her head slightly from side to side, strands of her long blond hair curling across her cheek. The contact lasted only a second before the small man looked away, but Sophie got the impression that he had looked directly at her.

We just covered three paragraphs that take place in a single instant.

  1. First, he mentions the glowing eyes happen in “the briefest instant.” This suggests the next paragraph will move onto something else.
  2. In the next paragraph, Sophie thinks about why he shouldn’t be able to see her. This involves some complex reasoning, suggesting it takes too long for that brief instant and instead happens afterward.
  3. Finally, Sophie seems to think back on that brief instant again. Since we’ve already left that creepy moment behind, the tingling doesn’t have the same power. Then, it turns out that during this brief instant Sophie manages to roll her shoulders and tilt her head several times.

Generally, telling events out of order reduces immersion; description of the same moment should be in the same place. To narrate a moment that’s brief but impactful, be realistic about how much can fit in that time window and prioritize what goes there… or die. Let’s look at a sample edit for these paragraphs that does that.

Example

Sophie was about to turn away when the gray man suddenly spun around and seemed to stare directly at her, even though he shouldn’t have been able to see her across the street and through a window that was bright with reflected sunlight. His face was in shadow under the awning, and for the briefest instant, his eyes looked as if they were glowing. The tiny hairs on Sophie’s forearms tingled, and she felt a puff of cold air touch the back of her neck. Then the small man looked away, and the moment was gone.

To fit more in, I extended the length of the stare but kept the glowing brief. That way, Sophie can consider that he shouldn’t be able to see her while he’s looking at her before his eyes glow. The tingling and cold air are related immediately after the glowing eyes to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. Then, to keep the incident feeling brief and mysterious, it’s gone before Sophie has time to roll her shoulders.

The first scene has one more paragraph!

In the instant before the gray man and his three over-dressed companions disappeared into the bookshop, Sophie decided that she did not like him.

Lol. This is like looking at a bunch of people in black robes dancing around a bloody altar, and then deciding maybe you don’t like them only after they leave. Sophie also makes this judgment call “in the instant before the gray man and his three over-dressed companions disappeared.” I’m not sure why Scott wanted to specify the exact moment, but okay I guess?

Deliver What You Promise

It’s viewpoint change time. No, of course we’re not in Nicholas Flamel’s viewpoint. What, did you think this book was about Flamel or something? But on the plus side, our new viewpoint character is actually in the same building with the bad guys. Also on the plus side, he is not Flamel.

Will he do something other than stare at the villains and describe them over the phone? Let’s find out.

Peppermint.

And rotten eggs.

“That is just vile.” Josh Newman stood in the center of the bookstore’s cellar and breathed deeply. Where were those smells coming from? He looked around at the shelves stacked high with books and wondered if something had crawled in behind them and died. What else would account for such a foul stink? The tiny cramped cellar always smelled dry and musty, the air heavy with the odors of parched curling paper, mingled with the richer aroma of old leather bindings and dusty cobwebs.

Scott is using these smells as an opening hook for his scene. Setting aside whether he could have come up with a better hook considering the minions nearby, the smells are a little intriguing. However, the way Scott is introducing them is actually making them feel less so. While peppermint and rotten eggs together are contradictory, to find those smells specifically in a store full of old books is much weirder. Getting just “peppermint” and “rotten eggs” as separate paragraphs robs us of that context. I would have chosen to delay their introduction briefly, so they could have more impact.

Example

Josh Newman held his nose. Why did the stacks of old books in the shop’s cellar smell like peppermint and rotten eggs? It was vile.

Next, Scott spends a whole paragraph describing this peppermint smell and then a paragraph on the rotten eggs, as though we don’t know what they smell like or if they’re important characters.

Scott tells readers that Josh is in the cellar looking for a 27-volume set of The Complete Works of Charles Dickens.

Josh had been working in the bookshop for nearly two months and still didn’t have the faintest idea where anything was. There was no filing system . . . or rather, there was a system, but it was known only to Nick and Perry Fleming, the owners of The Small Book Shop. Nick or his wife could put their hands on any book in either the shop upstairs or the cellar in a matter of minutes.

Well pop some champagne corks, we finally know how these teenagers are connected to Nicholas Flamel! I’m not saying this is great, but I’ve certainly seen worse when it comes to involving characters in the throughline.

Also, I can relate to the headache of trying to decipher someone else’s terrible organization system. Condolences, Josh.

Hopefully this bookshop will be left behind once the plot heats up, because I’m already concerned that calling the shop “The Small Book Shop” will get confusing. If reading through this paragraph quickly, it would be easy to miss that this is the name of the shop and not a generic descriptor. In audio, if the narrator doesn’t purposely inflect their voice to convey it’s the name of the shop, that won’t come across.

A wave of peppermint, immediately followed by rotten eggs, filled the air again; Josh coughed and felt his eyes water. This was impossible! Stuffing the book list into one pocket of his jeans and the headphones into the other, he maneuvered his way through the piled books and stacks of boxes, heading for the stairs. […] He needed a breath of fresh air or he was going to throw up—but, strangely, the closer he came to the top of the stairs, the stronger the odors became.

I cut out some of the above paragraph, because, like usual, Scott went on longer than he needed to. But otherwise, this gives us a nice turn that increases the mystery around these smells and ends on just the right note.

Let’s look at the last two paragraphs of chapter one.

He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.

And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.

Well, that is some overpromising if I’ve ever seen it. But I’ll give Scott a chance.

Alright, Scott, show me in the beginning of chapter two that Josh instantly sees something that means the world won’t be the same. If you succeed, I will apologize for assuming you misled your readers to inflate this hook.

Josh peered over the edge of the cellar, eyes watering with the stink of sulfur and mint. His first impression was that the usually quiet shop was crowded: four men facing Nick Fleming, the owner, three of them huge and hulking, one smaller and sinister-looking. Josh immediately guessed that the shop was being robbed.

Nope, the shop being robbed does not qualify as “the world would never be the same again.”

However, a presumed robbery would be a fine way to start the book if Scott just opened with it instead of with Sophie staring at people across the street. If it’s important to establish Sophie as a character, she could be here bringing Josh lunch from her coffee shop. If it’s really important that they aren’t seen by the villains, Josh could be just outside the shop to meet her. Then they could see the villains enter the shop and peek inside. However, I would still look for a way for these teens to interact directly with the villains if possible.

It’s finally time for the elephant squeezing in here with us. Why would a book that’s supposedly about Nicholas Flamel, and is advertising itself with that premise, open with two random teenagers? This feels like a bait and switch. No, I didn’t like Flamel, but if that’s what the book is using to draw people in, it should deliver on that promise. If it needs both teenagers and Flamel, why not a young Flamel?

I don’t normally read the back of a book before critiquing it, but I decided to check the advertising blurb on Amazon to see if it sets the right expectations. Instead it goes on for quite a while about Flamel before Sophie and Josh are awkwardly inserted in there towards the end. A shopper could easily overlook the one line mentioning them.

My best guess is that Scott wrote this book starring Sophie and Josh to appeal to his YA audience. Then, Scott’s publisher decided that Nicholas Flamel would be the best selling point because people would think this is a Harry Potter book – or at least Potter-ish.

This is typical of the push and pull between writers and marketers. The market moves fast, but writers often take years to produce a novel. So agents are always trying to get writers to drastically edit their novels to reflect whatever’s hot at the moment. I don’t recommend that; it’s a losing game. But it appears that Scott was lucky enough to hit the jackpot. Since this series is best-selling, I doubt he’s complaining. That doesn’t mean I can’t grumble about it though.

I dub this book “empty” for its absence of meaningful content in the opening. The whole first chapter could be cut and nothing would change. The second chapter does have an important event, but, unsurprisingly, Josh does nothing but stare.

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