I received a free advanced reader copy of The Takedown in exchange for an unbiased review.
Kyla Cheng doesn’t expect you to like her. For the record, she doesn’t need you to. On track to be valedictorian, she’s president of her community club, a debate team champ, plus the yummy Mackenzie Rodriguez has firmly attached himself to her hip. She and her three high-powered best friends don’t just own their senior year at their exclusive Park Slope, Brooklyn high school, they practically define the hated species Popular. Kyla’s even managed to make it through high school completely unscathed.
Until someone takes issue with this arrangement.
A week before college applications are due, a video of Kyla “doing it” with her crush-worthy English teacher is uploaded to her school’s website. It instantly goes viral, but here’s the thing: it’s not Kyla in the video. With time running out, Kyla delves into a world of hackers, haters and creepy stalkers in an attempt to do the impossible-take something off the internet-all while dealing with the fallout from her own karmic footprint. Set in near-future Brooklyn, where privacy is a bygone luxury and every perfect profile masks damning secrets, The Takedown is a stylish, propulsive, and provocative whodunit, asking who would you rely on if your tech turned against you? Excerpt taken from Netgalley.com
As someone who spends too much time blogging and on social media, I was drawn to issues raised in this book: lack of privacy in a connected world and what could go wrong as tech advances make it difficult to tell reality from forgery. The story’s main character, Kyla, is the kind of girl you want to hate, the popular girl that struts down the corridor at the start of school arm in arm with her besties ignoring all around her. But when a forged sex video turns everyone against her, you can’t help but sympathize, and want her to catch her hater.
The feminist story raises several important issues. Why does no one, even her best friends, believe Kyla when she says the video is a fake? Why is the hottest guy in school not called a slut for his serial romances and that thing he can do with his thumb while the Kyla is universally shunned after the video is posted? What are the consequences of not reading those long, tedious disclosure clauses when we sign up on social media sites? Would we be able to take down a video that showed us in an unflattering light from a social media website?
Teens are warned to be careful in their use of social media every day, but the possible consequences of weak, infrequently changed passwords are portrayed credibly in this story. A must-read for those wary of identity theft and social media attacks, and those who should be. Also a reminder of the golden rule because what goes around, comes around.
I received an Advanced Reader Copy of The Disappearances in exchange for an honest review.
What if the ordinary things in life suddenly…disappeared?
When Aila’s mother dies and her father is drafted to fight in World War II, she and her younger brother are sent to live with her mother’s best friend from childhood. Aila has met Mrs. Clifton and her son only twice and arrives at her mother’s rural home town, Sterling, grieving and hoping to hoping to discover what her mother was like when she was young. Instead she finds whispers and mysteries.
Sterling is cursed. Every seven years something disappears. The scents of food and flowers, the ability to see reflections in a mirror or a pane of glass, even dreams. They’ve been gone for years and aren’t returned by crossing the town line. For the inhabitants of Sterling, everyday life comes with a sense of loss over the things that have disappeared and the fear of the next one to go. The only inhabitant of Sterling to ever have escaped the Disappearances was Aila’s mother, which is why most people in town suspect that she caused them.
The Disappearances takes you to a new world, a town set apart by the Disappearances and the magic residents have found in their search the remedy the affects. Emily Bain Murphy’s writing is lovely and Aila will pull into her struggle to fit in in this strange community, her search for the truth about her mother, and her quest to follow clues that will lead her to the source of the curse. The Disappearances will appeal to the literary minded, as Aila follows the clues in her mother’s old copy of Shakespeare’s works and other classics.
We received a free copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s TheUrban Settings Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces in exchange for an honest review. Since we’re fans of their Emotion Thesaurus as well as their thesauri of positive and negative character trains, we were excited to dive in. (See our review of the other bookshere.)
The Urban Setting Thesaurus is a wonderful resource for a fiction writer! The bulk of this book and its sister craft book, TheRural Settings Thesaurus, is comprised of two-page entries describing dozens of settings that could pop up in any fiction genre — from a police car to an emergency room, the stands of a sporting event to an art gallery. Each entry provides a wealth of sensory words describing the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes that characterize that setting.
In the recording studio entry, you find sights like vocalists warming up, cords running from instruments to outlets and recording equipment, and the “recording” light to let you know to keep quiet. You hear humming or instruments being played, smell takeout Chinese food or coffee, and feel the snug fit of headphones over your ears. If your scene takes place in a setting you’ve never been to, this thesaurus can help you craft the experience your characters will encounter in a way that will make your story feel more real to your reader.
Not sure where a scene should take place? A flip through entries listed in the table of contents could help you brainstorm. Perhaps your protagonist is mulling over whether to confront her antagonist…she could do that anywhere. But what she sees, hears and touches as she weighs her decision could more vividly show her mood and emotions. What backdrop would carry the most emotional impact? Would highlight her fears and the challenges she’ll need to face?
In addition to the setting entries, there is a wealth of information in the first chapters of The Urban Setting Thesaurus on how to use setting to convey your story with the most impact. These chapters discuss how to use setting to create a mood, to characterize a room full of primary and secondary characters, and to heighten tension. They also illustrate using all the senses to pull the reader into your scene.
I’m sure I’ll turn to this helpful resource again and again.
For more on using The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus, see Laurel’s post here!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.
LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.
I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.
The story’s good, but the start…meh.
With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.
Can I get to great?
Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.
What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:
starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
just after her life changed,
a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
the first confrontation with the bully, and
the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.
I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”
What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.
“No action,” said the critique partners.
“Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
“What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”
I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?
I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.
At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.
1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.
I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.
2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.
Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.
3. Get Fresh Eyes.
I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?
I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.
4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.
I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.
Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.
So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.
Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.
Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.
DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.
A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.
Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?
To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of March, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.
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Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on March 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!