MYC: The Importance of First and Last Pages

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with Writing “Other” with Sensitivity. This week, we’re diving into the importance of first and last pages.

My introduction to writing first pages came early in my career at an SCBWI conference. I listened as a moderator read anonymously submitted first pages of manuscripts and a panel of agents and editors generously gave feedback. Some they loved, some were “meh,” and some they hated. But in all of them, they looked for the same criteria:

An interesting and unique voice, a grounding in place and time, an introduction to the main character, enough plot to pique interest, an idea of the main character’s internal and/or external conflicts, and his or her stakes. And all of that in a few hundred words. Oh the stress!

So why is the first page, and the next few, so important? They determine whether someone will read further. Are those words compelling enough for a person to give up all other activities to spend time with your characters?

Don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it seems. Let’s look at two main aspects of first pages.

Where should you begin? Think about what people thrive on. Conflict. Tension. And since the goal is to have readers turn the pages, it’s crucial to get right to what is most important. Ask yourself what the plot is, the central idea. Is it about a person, a place, or an event such as going to a new school or hurricane?  Note: conflict and tension does not always mean action.

How can you capture all, or most, of the aspects noted above? The easiest way (and I laugh hysterically as I type that) is through word choice. Word choices can make a voice unique, can provide a brief description of the character, and can give readers a hint at the plot and conflict.

Check out this example from the first page of Kristi Wientge’s recently released KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE:

Dadima used to say I’d be as strong as a lion if I drank milk twice a day. She never mentioned I’d get as hairy as one too. There should have been a disclaimer-bold letters and a voice-over with a list of side effects scrolling along the side of my grandma’s face whenever she handed me a cup of hot milk.

From this paragraph (not even the whole first page) we can tell her family’s culture (character) because she refers to her grandmother as Dadima. We also get a peek at a potential problem (plot) for the main character: unwanted hair. And unwanted hair is typically an issue (conflict) for girls. The next paragraph puts us in the kitchen (setting) with her father, gives us her name (character), and shows she has some spunk when she says I had the urge to accidentally spill curry down the front of the apron. (character and voice)

Sometimes the key to writing successful beginnings is knowing what to avoid. Here are common problems agents and editors have noticed:

Overused openings – examples are waking up and first day of school.

Over thinking – don’t think, just do.

Too much detail or set up – this can be a problem in stories with heavy world building. Avoid info dump and lingering on setting.

Too much backstory – focus on the present and get to the event. It is okay to withhold information at the beginning.

Too many characters – readers need know the main character first.

Endings have a lot of work to do in tying up all the threads of the plot (and subplots) and resolving any lingering issues for the characters. This can be especially tricky in a serial novel, when you must leave some things open-ended but, at the same time, have to wrap things up—or risk incurring your readers’ wrath. But in all cases, even in a serial, one of the main thematic purposes of an ending is to show how the protagonist has changed.

I like to think about the ending as mirroring the beginning—but with a twist. The “twist” is the thing that shows the protagonist’s growth. In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien opens with a description of Bilbo Baggins’ cozy hobbit-hole, detailing all its creature comforts—comforts Bilbo loves and doesn’t want to leave. But he does. After all his adventures, Bilbo returns home only to discover he is “presumed dead,” his hobbit-hole is for sale, and its contents are being auctioned off. This should have been his worst nightmare. But Bilbo doesn’t mind, because he’s changed. In both scenes, Bilbo is at home in Hobbiton, but the ending image reverses the beginning’s, and through that twist, and Bilbo’s reaction to it, Tolkien shows us that Bilbo is no longer the comfort-craving hobbit he was in the beginning. He has grown.

Of course, the mirroring + twist doesn’t have to be as literal as it is in The Hobbit, but it’s helpful to think of the two scenes as having a special relationship to one another in which the ending complicates, reworks, or revisits some aspect of the beginning as a way of showing the protagonist’s growth.

When I start a new project, one the first things I do is imagine the opening and closing scenes and think about how, visually and metaphorically, they’ll show the protagonist’s growth. Those two images are my touchstones, my character’s arc in miniature; the rest I figure out as I start to outline. Without those two bookends, I don’t think I’d feel confident with where I was going.

Bonus Tip: I first read about this idea in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Check it out for more on story structure.

 

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. And wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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Book Recommendation: The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding

I am a huge fan of creepy. Books, movies, decaying abandoned houses. So when The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken became available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it. This book is the whole package of eerie while still having the humor middle grade readers love.

Goodreads

“I would say it’s a pleasure to meet thee, Prosperity Oceanus Redding, but truly, I only anticipate the delights of destroying thy happiness .”
Prosper is the only unexceptional Redding in his old and storied family history-that is, until he discovers the demon living inside him. Turns out Prosper’s great-great-great-great-great-something grandfather made-and then broke-a contract with a malefactor, a demon who exchanges fortune for eternal servitude. And, weirdly enough, four-thousand-year-old Alastor isn’t exactly the forgiving type. The fiend has reawakened with one purpose–to destroy the family whose success he ensured and who then betrayed him. With only days to break the curse and banish Alastor back to the demon realm, Prosper is playing unwilling host to the fiend, who delights in tormenting him with nasty insults and constant attempts to trick him into a contract. Yeah, Prosper will take his afterlife without a side of eternal servitude, thanks. But with the help of his long-lost uncle, Barnabas, and his daughter, Nell, a witch-in-training, it seems like Prosper has at least a fighting chance of ridding himself of Alastor before the demon escapes and wreaks havoc on his family.
Little does Prosper know, the malefactor’s control over his body grows stronger with each passing night and there’s a lot Alastor isn’t telling his dim-witted (but admittedly strong-willed) human host.

From #1 New York Times best-selling author Alexandra Bracken comes a tale of betrayal and revenge, of old hurts passed down from generation to generation. Can you ever fully right a wrong, ever truly escape your history? Or will Prosper and Alastor be doomed to repeat it? (NetGalley)

We meet Prosper on the first page and that’s where I fell in love with his voice.  He’s not the best student or the most popular, but he has a personality you can’t help but root for. Especially when we’re introduced to an ominous stranger who spies on Prosper, an angry and sadistic grandmother, a basement he’s forced into, and a ritual that involves a knife. (We haven’t even gotten to the haunted house yet!)

The fantastic characters don’t stop with Prosper. All are well-developed and have such strong motivations, it is easy to cheer them on, including the demon, Alastor, trying to possess him. It’s because of the strength of the characters that we don’t see the plot twists, and at one point, you have no idea who is good or evil.

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding is not just a tale to send chills down your spine or give you goosebumps. It’s not just about a boy who may or may not escape (no spoilers!) a centuries old pact with a demon. This story is about an underdog who puts others first and learns his own self worth.

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding is now available! You can find it at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and IndiBound. And don’t forget to check out author Alexandra Bracken’s website here.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

Book Recommendation: The Girl with the Red Balloon

Goodreads

I am immediately drawn to any book involving World War II and how it changed the world. When I read a good one, I feel the need to shout it from the rooftops . The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke is one of those stories.

The story is told in three points of view: a Jewish teen living the horrors of World War II, a contemporary teen girl who travels in time, and a boy living in East Berlin during the Cold War. Each character brings us so deeply into their world, the horrific realities are impossible to ignore. But a touch of magic in the form a red balloon helps us find hope.

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process. Goodreads

There are so many wonderful things about this book. Overall, the story of survival and the dedication of those willing to help people trapped in dangerous and oppressive conditions is heartwarming. The story flows like a balloon floating in the sky. The plot is clear and well written and pulls readers in as we fight along with the characters to get Ellie Baum home. We are quickly introduced to the six main and secondary characters whose relationships with each other are subtle yet complex. They are well developed with strengths, weaknesses, and strong motivations. You can’t help but root for them all, and even those with questionable methods have commendable goals.

In my travels, I spent some time in Berlin, after the wall fell, and was astonished at the stark contrast between the east and west that remained. Locke describes the dismal and depressing East Berlin with such clarity, as I read, the images in my mind were gray.

Yet there are the red balloons. The balloons and the magic written on them float in and out of the past joining the stories. They bring color and hope for the characters to the very last sentence.

The Girl with the Red Balloon, Book #1 in the Balloonmakers series, comes out September 1, 2017, and can be found at bookstores and libraries including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

For more information about this book and the author, please visit her website at Katherine Locke.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: How and When to Write Emotion

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of Pacing and Tension. This week, we’re looking at emotion.

I don’t know about you, but this topic brings out a lot of emotion because it is so closely tied to the phrase writers love to hate: show don’t tell. But, before we can show emotion, we need to discuss where it is needed.

Have you ever read a scene in a book that made you feel something – terrified, joyful, helpless – but the character didn’t show any emotion? How did that make you feel? Emotionless scenes leave me feeling empty. Cheated. They remind me I’m not really part of the story. I’m just a reader.

That doesn’t mean every scene needs heart-racing, sweaty hands, and lip-quivering. In fact, too much of that can make the story and characters seem unrealistic. What they do need are realistic responses to events.

When writing, look at each scene. Imagine you are the character (and by this I  mean all the characters. Even secondary players have feelings). Close your eyes if you want, dress the part if it helps. Put yourself in the specific event you are writing about. What are you feeling? How strong is it? If you felt something, your characters should too. After all, they are people just like us.

Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Now that we have a way to identify where emotion is needed, we can move to the more difficult part of writing: the dreaded show don’t tell. A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. While most people and characters exhibit specific habits when excited, frightened, or anxious, too many “my heart raced as she walked into the room” can be predictable and boring.  Instead of just telling us the character’s palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she’s in a cold sweat that’s tickling her as it drips down her face. It’s OK to do some physical cues–face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs–but don’t only do that.

There are many ways to write emotion and all are acceptable, within reason. My suggestion is to mix it up.

Here is a great example of using multiple techniques to convey emotion in a single scene, from Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star.

“I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it. His whole face turned red–cheeks, nose, the tips of his ears–the whole thing. He was practically aglow. His eyes darted sideways to where his new friends were watching us like we were on TV.

Why don’t you get some friends of your own and stop following me around like a baby?” he said instead.

He should’ve just hit me.

He grabbed his bike out of the dirt and puffed himself up with so much angry air I thought he’d burst, and I’d have to tell Mom that her older and more perfect son exploded.

“My name is Charles,” he said to those boys, daring them to say another word. “Are you coming or what?” He didn’t wait for them, didn’t look back to see if they were coming.”

This is such a quick scene, but conveys so much information about the relationship between the main character and his older brother, and conveys character emotion in a gut-punching way.

State the emotion – Yoon names Charles’ anger, but in a fresh way–“puffed himself up with so much angry air.” Remember, the reader wants to feel the excitement, not be told about it.

Show through dialogue – Voicey dialog can make a character come to life, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re showing emotion, and that you’re not telling us (“I’m so excited!”) but showing us. Look at the way Yoon reinforces the anger in this scene with dialog. Charles calls his brother a baby, but also uses short, choppy bits of dialog at the end of the scene, which reinforces his anger–“Are you coming or what?”

Descriptive phrases – for example, similes and metaphors. Here, Yoon uses some great description of Charles’ face to describe his anger. He turns red, which could be cliche, but then she freshens it by adding the tips of his ears, and the phrase “he’s practically aglow.”  Later in the scene, as his anger escalates, he goes from “aglow” to downright explosive. So the imagery builds as the emotion of the scene does.

Hope your toolbox is now filled with more tips for writing emotion. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at big picture fixes!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

MYC: Welcome to World Building

  Master Your Craft Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Setting as a Character. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about the humongous and intimidating topic of world building. Today we start by looking at the topic as a whole and how it can be applied to contemporary stories.

At it’s most basic, world building is fun, the height of creativity. Close your eyes and imagine a society as strange and decadent as Panem, the capital in The Hunger Games, or place as real and (to some) familiar as a middle school basketball court. Let your imagination run wild, or keep things simple and true. What will serve as the best backdrop for your characters and action?

  • When is the story happening? Past, present, or future?
  • Where? Small-town, America or a galaxy far, far away?
  • What resources do your characters have at their disposal? Money? Magic? Advanced weapons? Or nothing but their own muscle and ingenuity?
  • What do your characters believe and how does that square or contrast with the beliefs of the society around them?

So why is world-building intimidating? Because if you allow yourself to dream up something spectacular and then take the ten or twenty pages to outline your masterpiece of a world, every critique partner will tell you to delete it and get your plot moving. The hard thing about creating a world isn’t dreaming it up, it’s dropping bits and pieces everywhere in your story, not serving it up in one big chunk.

Let’s look at building the world for a story. There are so many potential areas to consider,  it’s helpful to have a checklist:

  • Geography– environment, terrain, weather, rural/urban setting, natural resources
  • Politics– types/roles of governments, stability, power, laws
  • Society– population, city/town size, diversity, gender/family roles, education, language, architecture, naming conventions
  • Economics– finances, socioeconomic status, cost of living, unemployment, import/export
  • Belief Systems– religion, spirituality, practices, freedom, tolerance
  • Ideas/Cultures– values, dress, arts, heroes, communication, leisure time
  • Technology– types, availability, usage

So how can you avoid the ten-page info-dump? Here are a few hints about slipping your world into the story.

  • Character’s actions
  • Social context
  • Physical descriptions
  • Language/Emotions
  • Names
  • Sensory descriptions – smells, sounds, texture
  • Dialogue

Let’s look, again, at The Hunger Games.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
From The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

In the first paragraph of the book, we learn that Katniss’s family is poor (bare mattress), and we’ll know by the end of the second page that her whole district is. We learn that Prim is important to Katniss. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we know it’s bad and will keep reading to find out more. The trick that Suzanne Collins pulls off so well, is to keep the action moving while you pull the reader about your world. To show the world it in everything the characters see, feel and think.

It is easy to pick out the world building bits in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction, but what about contemporary stories? On one hand, writers of contemporaries get it easy. The world of their story is the world of the reader, so it’s all out there. That allows some short cuts. On the other hand, ours is a big world. Where does this story take place within it?

Let’s look at the first page of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Dribbling

At the top of the key, I’m
MOVING & GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING
Why you BUMPING?
Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING.
Be careful though,
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING,
FLOSSING
flipping
and my dipping will leave you
S
L
I
P
P
I
N
on the floor, while I
SWOOP
 in
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
Swoooooooooooosh.
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander*

The constant movement, slang and trash talk sets the world quickly. A sports game. Did you guess we were on a basketball court before the swoosh? In this world, the young player knows he’s good and wants his opponent to know it too. You may not know much about the character yet, but I bet you’re not imagining this gym is in some fancy prep school. This world building is all done while he’s taking the ball to the net.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in fantasy. You can also find more information on world building here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4nVDoojTrs
http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/worldbuilding-101
http://io9.gizmodo.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537

*Apologies to Mr. Alexander. I could not get the formatting of his words nearly as cool as it is in print. See the published novel for the full effect!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.