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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Monster Picture Books are Monstrously Good for You!

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”– G.K. Chesterton 

As I’m partial to monster picture books, I think they should be enjoyed year-round, but as it’s Halloween, it’s time to get into full-on monster picture book mode!

After all, monster picture books feature so many hideously fantastic monsters! There are ghosts, werewolves, dragons, gremlins, vampires, sea monsters, yetis, aliens, furry creatures, Frankenstein, and even zombies!

Children love monster stories and have for thousands of years because children love to be scared within the safety of a storyteller or a book. Not only that, but reading scary books is good for children. It allows them to imagine themselves in the story, where they can confront and triumph over the monsters, thereby confronting and triumphing over their fears.

According to Bruno Bettelheim, a famed psychoanalyst and author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”

Our monster picture books today are not nearly as scary as our passed down fairy tales. Have you read the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella where one stepsister cuts off her toes to fit in the glass slipper and the other her heel? Then there’s Hansel and Gretel, about a witch who captures two children in the woods and tries to fatten them up so she can eat them. Yeah, that’s pretty horrifying, and if I were to write a picture book about cannibalism, I’m not sure that would go down so well (sorry, couldn’t resist)!

But we love these stories and their tamer monster picture books of today because ultimately stories show us how to live. They make us feel things in new ways and in new situations, and by doing so, they help us know ourselves and the world we live in. Stories allow us to face our darkest fears, from getting lost in the woods to losing our mother and surviving those fears.

I will leave you with this fabulous list of monsters, some of them from long ago. Perhaps, one of them is waiting for a starring role in a monstrous picture book.

Wishing you a very happy and scary Halloween!

KARIN LEFRANC is the author of a monster picture book called I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS about a little zombie who eats books instead of brains, until the students show him another way to devour books. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

Twitter 101 for Writers: Building Your Twitter Writing Community

Twitter 101 for writers, Building your writing communityBack in February, I wrote my first post in the Twitter 101 for Writers series. That post covered the Twitter Writing Community hashtags writers can use to find resources for every stage of the writing journey, from getting words on the page to finding a literary agent. At that point, I had the idea that Twitter 101 could be a series, but wasn’t sure what to cover next. Then I met Abby Matthews, who was new to Twitter but trying to get up to speed fast so she could publicize her new podcast Mom Writes, featured on this blog last week. Abby asked me questions about Twitter and as I answered them, I came up with material for several more posts. This first one will be about Building Your Twitter Writing Community.

Abby’s question:

“To me Twitter is a lot of it is SNIPPETS of stuff. That’s where it loses me. I always feel like I’m eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation and it makes me totally uncomfortable. Plus, the vast majority of people I follow on Twitter are total strangers. So I’m like, WHY? Why would I want to listen anyway? I’m great at Facebook, but I think because Facebook was initially geared towards people you actually know in real life, I always felt more comfortable there.  

How you turn the Twitter Writing Community from a bunch of strangers writing snippets to a group of friends who will help you along your writing journey is a complicated question. Some of my friends on Twitter I’ve met in real life and that certainly helps. Others, I’ve met through in-person or online writing conferences and we had that connection, but they would probably be gone from my life without Twitter. Then there are people who I really met through Twitter. And there’s the Winged Pen which is a whole other thing. I think the best way to show how I created my Twitter Writing Community is to give examples of how Twitter helped me build relationships of different types.

Twitter 101, Building Your Twitter Writing Community
Karin, Gita Trelease and I got books signed by Kwame Alexander at the NESCBWI conference!

Karin Lefranc is a writing partner I met through SCBWI critique groups when I was moving to the U.S. from the U.K. She lives in the next town over from me. I already had an online critique group, but I planned to attend the New England SCBWI conference for the first time and didn’t want to walk in without knowing a soul, so I joined her local critique group. We went to the conference and learned about the Twitter writing community, and both joined. Karin and I meet for lunch and email all the time but on Twitter, we do things like “like” and retweet each other’s tweets, forward each other links to posts on writing topics that will help with our writing, and cheer for each other when there are things to celebrate, like the launch of her picture book: I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS.

Karin is busy and not on Twitter a ton. We would still be pals without a much different relationship without Twitter, but for getting the word about her book out there, it definitely helped that we were Twitter friends because you can only Tweet about your own book so much. It helps to have friends to boost you.

Marty Mayberry, on the other hand, I met via Twitter. We were both following Pitch Wars four years ago. I was querying my first book without success and really needed help trying to figure out what was wrong. We met chatting about sci fi on the Pitch Wars hashtag and exchanged queries and first chapters so we’d be ready to sub to the contest. Then we exchanged entire manuscripts because we liked each other’s work and critiques. Then we exchanged subsequent manuscripts, so really, this is a Twitter friend who turned into a critique partner.

Marty has since gotten an agent and become a pitch wars mentor. She’s writing more adult and romance and less sci fi so we don’t exchange manuscripts now, but she’s killer with synopses, so I asked her to help me with one recently. I support her on Twitter by letting Pitch Wars hopefuls know that she’s awesome, and boosting Tweets on other contests she mentors (Nightmare on Query Street is coming up soon!)

I’ve never met Marty in person and because our writing has drifted apart, we would probably not have kept up our relationship without occasionally seeing each other and waving or high-fiving with likes and retweets or conversations on Twitter. For us, it’s like the water cooler for people who work in different departments, a place to bump into each other occasionally and see how each other is doing so the relationship doesn’t die.

Then there are the people who I met at WriteonCon. Marty dragged me to WriteonCon, an online writing conference that is a whole lot of things, but that year it was mostly forums where you could post your query and/or first page and/or first five pages and let people critique them and go and critique theirs. It was both crazy and a whole lot of fun! You could tell the people who were “your people” b/c they overlapped in genre or category and b/c their words and critiques spoke to you. After WriteOnCon, Julie Artz, suggested we form a Facebook group, The Fellowship of the Winged Pen. Members of that group later started this blog.

Even though we all email each other manuscripts for critique and have a private Facebook group to chat behind the scenes, we all chat on Twitter too. We celebrate getting agents and book deals, we boost Tweets to get them noticed, we send out links to posts that are relevant to our writing, and we just chat about topics that are trending. Some of the folks are agented and mentors for Pitch Wars, so they need to be “out there” growing a following, and it’s easier to do that if you are not just pushing your own content, but by sharing stuff you think is interesting and have friends who boost your reach.

Then, there are people like Jennie Nash, the founder of Author Accelerator, a Book Coaching company, whose posts I’ve retweeted because I think they are well written and relevant to other writers on the journey to publication. I read Jennie’s newsletter, and one day she asked for people interested in helping to get the word out about a new podcast she was involved in, Mom Writes (bringing me full circle to how I met Abby!) I never expected my relationship with Jennie Nash to extend beyond Twitter, but it’s cool that it has.

The key thing is that if you are just Tweeting out into the universe, it will feel like a black hole where no one is listening. But if you tweet things you think are interesting or that will help your Twitter Writing Community (even when it is still small and “community” might feel like an exaggeration!), it helps all of you and helps you grow your community.

This takes time. Time reading posts and figuring out who knows what they are talking about. But taking this approach of building my Twitter Writing Community helped me meet the people who wanted to create this blog, which I could never have done on my own. And it gave me the base of 3000 Twitter followers (of Winged Pen, not me), so I could offer Jennie and Abby help getting the word out about their podcast and add some more cool folks to my Twitter Writing Community. So serendipitous? Or a natural outcome of finding your community on Twitter and being willing to help (and get a good story for your blog!)?

To sum up, here are my tips for Building Your Twitter Writing Community. Look for people who:

  • Write in the same category and/or genre who you might want to exchange manuscripts with,
  • Share advice that can help you get to the next level in your writing journey, and
  • You’ve met in person and might not otherwise be able to stay in touch with.

Keeping in touch with these people on Twitter and off will all add up to a writing community to help you get where you want to go, boost you when you get rejections, and celebrate when you get wins.

DO YOU HAVE OTHER SUGGESTIONS ON HOW TO BUILD A TWITTER WRITING COMMUNITY? OR QUESTIONS ON HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF TWITTER AS A WRITER? If so, leave them in the comments below!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is and middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure. She on Twitter at @RebeccaJ_Allen and her website is writerebeccawrite.wordpress.com.

 

Interview with Melissa Roske Author of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN

Melissa Roske is the author of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN She completely embodies the MG writing community because she’s about the friendliest and most supportive person you will meet. Before I talk to Melissa, here’s more about her book: 

Eleven-year-old Kat Greene has a lot on her pre-rinsed plate, thanks to her divorced mom’s obsession with cleaning. When Mom isn’t scrubbing every inch of their Greenwich Village apartment, she’s boiling the silverware or checking Kat’s sheets for bedbugs. It’s enough to drive any middle schooler crazy! Add friendship troubles to the mix, a crummy role in the school play, and Mom’s decision to try out for “Clean Sweep,” a competitive-cleaning TV game show, and what have you got? More trouble than Kat can handle—at least, without a little help from her friends.

I’m so excited about this book, Melissa! I recently finished OCDaniel and it’s definitely one of those books that has stuck with me. You also tackle OCD in your book and it’s both personal to you and underrepresented in MG lit. 

Would you like to let us know how OCD has played a part in your life and how it inspired Kat’s story?

This may sound strange, but OCD played a huge part in my life while I was growing up, but I didn’t know it. Let me explain. My dad used to check the locks on the front door, as well as the gas jets on the stove, over and over, especially before he went to sleep at night. I figured he was just being careful, but I now know he had OCD. Even stranger, it wasn’t until I was done writing the book that I realized that the mom in the story, who has a cleaning compulsion, is actually based on my dad. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me, at least not on a conscious level. My dad, however, in addition to being a “checker,” is the opposite of Kat’s mom. He is extremely messy and keeps everything. I actually found an expired credit card in his wallet from 1998! I have some OCD symptoms too, like the need to have my window shades fixed at a certain level, and feeling uncomfortable if a drawer is left open or a cabinet door is ajar. Still, I wouldn’t say my OCD adversely affects my life. It’s just annoying, and disconcerting at times. To my family, and to myself.

You’ve had a pretty prolific career from an advice columnist to a life coach. What was it that made you choose writing as your next career?

I’d always been interested in writing, especially creative writing, but it wasn’t until I was working as a life coach, helping my clients achieve their goals, that I realized I wasn’t achieving my goal: to write a novel. So I hired my own life coach, the amazing Sara Lewis Murre, and got down to work. Sara helped me to stay on track by holding me accountable for my writing goals. She suggested, for instance, that I establish a regular writing routine, using a timer for each session. I wasn’t allowed to leave my chair until the timer dinged! I also tried to adhere to a daily word count, which helped. Little by little, the words added up until I had an 80,000-word novel. It was chick-lit novel that ended up in my drawer, but that’s beside the point, isn’t it? 

How long did it take you to complete KAT?

As above, KAT was not my first book. My first book was a chick-lit novel called Good Girls Don’t Go Commando. I suspect the title was better than the book, because I was unable to obtain literary representation. Several agents actually liked the premise and requested pages, but apparently chick lit was “dead” and nobody thought the book would sell. Keeping that in mind, I decided to try my hand at another genre: middle-grade fiction. I wrote the first draft back in 2011. It was only 100 pages long, but I knew I had something I could work with, so I did another draft. And another. And then another. A billion drafts later (!), I started querying agents. Within a year I had representation, but the manuscript didn’t sell and my agent and I parted ways. I then rewrote the novel from top to bottom, changed the title, and started querying all over again. This time I found an agent who was able to sell the manuscript. I signed the contract with Charlesbridge in 2015.

What’s been the most surprising (or maybe frustrating) thing about the process of getting published?

How long everything takes. There’s a lot of waiting involved, which can be very, very frustrating. Still, I remind myself that waiting is part of the process, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Unfortunately, patience isn’t one of my strong points, so I need a lot of reminding!

I hear ya! And I think everyone in the query trenches can attest to this too. Thanks for joining us and all the best with KAT now out in the world!

If you want to know more about Melissa or her book, check her out here:
WebsiteFacebook / TwitterGoodreads

and her book here:

Amazon/ Barnes & Noble/ IndieBound/ Goodreads  

 

 

Kristi Wientge is the author of KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE.

MYC: Writing “Other” with Sensitivity

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 Power of Metaphor. This week, we’ll discuss writing “other” characters.

What is writing “Other”?

It simply means writing characters that are not like yourself.

Some writers are terrified to try this. If you’ve ever witnessed arguments about writing diversely or seen Twitter posts “dragging” authors who make mistakes when they tried to do so, you probably understand why!

But, it’s important that the stories we craft represent the world we inhabit. This post at Lit Reactor by K. Tempest Bradford sums up the importance of diversity in our writing and our reading pretty well, especially this paragraph:

 

Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.

 

So hopefully, you’ve included an interesting variety of people from different cultures, beliefs, or abilities in your masterpiece. And if not, this is a great time to tweak a few characters to give your story depth and sparkle.

 

But…

And this is a REALLY BIG BUT

Don’t do it unless you’re invested in doing it well.  

There are a few steps to that process.

Ask Yourself Why????

Why are you writing this “other” character?

Maybe you have a unique perspective. For example, you may have adopted a child of a different ethnicity or maybe your child has a disability and you want the world to see life through her eyes. Maybe your nephew has recently “come out” and you want (with his permission) to use his experiences to help others. Having a personal connection to writing “other” automatically puts pressure on you to get it right.

But maybe your reason is just because you feel it’s important to show that a gay, black, hearing-impaired boy can have exciting adventures. That’s okay too. BUT, you’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure your character is authentic and realistic for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the gay, black, hearing-impaired boy who might be read your story. Will he like it? Will he relate to the character? Will he recommend it to his friends?

After you’ve answered why, the real work begins.

Research!

A lot of it. Thoroughly. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But if you care about your readers and you want to make fans, you’ll do it. If you don’t approach your characters thoughtfully, you may do more harm than good and lose readers in the process. One of the worse things you can do is to write stereotypical characters.

Examples: the blind person who can “see” visions, the crippled evil villain, the savage Native American, the gay male who loves theatre, the sassy black girl…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

As we mentioned in our post about Writing Cross-Culturally, not only are those stereotypes unrealistic, but––especially in kid lit––they do harm. Just like there are millions of different behaviors of a “typical” white girl, the same is true of every character regardless of religious beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, bodily abilities…

Make all your characters real people. (For more details about how to do this see this post on character development and this one on supporting characters.) Understand what makes them tick, their beliefs, their concerns, their limitations, and their special abilities. This is important even if your “other” character isn’t the main character.

One great way to research is by reading books written by #ownvoices authors. Check out this Kirkus post by Cynthia Leitich Smith for more info.

See below for a list of resources about writing a variety of “other” characters.

Sensitivity Readers!

Yes, you’ll need them. Several in fact. If you don’t know what that is, read this or this. You may have a person in your life who can serve as a sensitivity reader for the “other” that is in your story, but I’d also suggest finding a reader that you don’t know. A reader who doesn’t know you personally will be more comfortable with being completely honest with you and will be able to provide a deeper insight to make your story more authentic. Heads up: If you haven’t employed a sensitivity reader before you submit to an agent, sometimes they will ask you to find one. Sometimes your editor will do that, but you should be prepared to pay a sensitivity reader for their time and experience. And here’s the most important part: LISTEN TO YOUR SENSITIVITY READERS!

One recent example of a book about “other” is Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. The story is about a girl who was born without arms. But Dusti has arms. How could she possibly write this book? She did her homework and followed up by reaching out to someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live without arms. Check out this Publisher’s weekly post to find out what inspired Dusti to write this book and this interview for more info about her research and sensitivity reader.

Here’s a database for finding sensitivity readers: Writing In The Margins

Own Up to Your Mistakes!

This may be the most important step. Hopefully you’ve taken the first three steps very seriously and done all your homework. But no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes because you are human. The best thing to do is to very clearly apologize to all those who you’ve offended. (Please note: True apologies do not contain the word “but”.) Accept your mistake(s) and learn from it. Do not blame anyone, not your friend readers, your betas, or your sensitivity readers. It’s yours. Own it. Move forward graciously.

General Resources:

Twitter Handles You Should Follow:

@writingtheother

@diversebooks

@disabilityInLit

Race and Ethnicity:

Gender:

Sexual Orientation:

Disability:

Be brave in your writing, but sensitive to your readers.

Let us know about other resources in the comments! Thanks for reading this week and come back next week to read our discussion about Writing Openings That Hook Readers and Endings That Turn Them Into Fans.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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