master writer #3–nancy werlin, the rules of survival

Today we look at the YA novel,  The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin, continuing my series about kidlit books in which the author has achieved amazing heights in some facet of their writing.

[unofficial trailer]

Brutally honest, The Rules of Survival depicts big-brother Matt’s day-to-day struggle to make sure he and his sisters make it through life with their vicious, unpredictable mother. Things look up when Murdoch starts dating their mom and she tries to appear normal, but when he leaves, things are worse than ever. Matt is going to have to take action if they’re all going to stay alive.

NANCY WERLIN’S SUPERPOWER

She has written the perfect first chapter.

Bold statement, I know. But in seven little pages, Nancy Werlin gives us the setting, the five major characters, (two of whom aren’t even in the scene) and the dilemma.

The book is written as a memoir to Matt’s youngest sister, telling her what happened one fateful year when she was too young to remember.

1. The only reason a reader sticks with a book is the author MAKES US CURIOUS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS TO THE MAIN CHARACTER, usually because we like him. Nancy establishes immediately how seriously Matt takes his responsibility for his little sisters:

“It was hard to figure out what would be the safest thing to do, for all three of us, all the time. But it was my job.”

“I was thinking that in a year–a year and a half–I could maybe go out by myself at night and trust Callie with you…I’d still be careful that you weren’t alone with her {their mother} when she came home after her Saturday night outings.”

2. Nancy cleverly and without telling, lays out the atmosphere, characters and problem. This adds up to ESTABLISHING A READER’S CONTRACT that you can count on to let you know what you’re in for. Look at these select lines from the first chapter of The Rules of Survival:

“…it was a date night for our mother–Saturday–so we’d been locked in.”

“Once Callie and I heard you snoring…we slipped out a window onto the back deck…”

“…My dad was afraid of our mother. He kept out of her way…I understood. She was unpredictable.”

“The big man…shook him hard, and kept doing it…And then the other man, the one I later knew was called Murdoch, was between the father and son. Murdoch snatched the little kid away from his father…”

“But Murdock talked directly to the kid. ‘It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you. No matter who does it, it’s wrong. Can you remember that?'”

From these snippets you can see that Nancy lets her readers know that this book is going to be about hard-core child abuse. Not only is the mother described leaving her children unattended, but her former lover, a grown man, is afraid of her. But there is hope! Her children are resourceful–they know how to slip out of the locked apartment.

But then, interestingly, Matt witnesses a father abusing his son in public, and a stranger steps in to put a stop to it. He says the amazing words: “It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you.” This isn’t a random event. This is a signal of the code Matt and the girls are going to learn to live by.

3. Of course there’s no point in reading a book if you know everything that’s going to happen, so Nancy gives us THE MYSTERIOUS TWIST. In this case, It’s a character, Murdoch. He’s introduced in the very first line:

“For me, the story begins with Murdoch McIlvane.”

He isn’t mentioned again until page four, after you understand the dire straits Matt and his sisters are in. Murdoch turns out to be sort of a hero, and just when you think he’ll swoop in to fix their lives, he walks out the door. On page seven.

How in the heck is this all going to work out?

Well, honey, turn to the second chapter and READ!

Get a copy of  The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–study that first chapter. You will be amazed by everything you know about the characters, the situation, the story by the end of the first chapter–and everything you want to know. For that reason, I dub Nancy Werlin the Perfect First Chapter Master.

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About Lisha Cauthen

Lisha Cauthen writes YA novels for guys that girls like to read too.

Posted on April 30, 2010, in writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. And you’re a master dissector, Lisha. Definitely makes me want to read this book (hard to read a novel about severe child abuse) and study Ms. Werlin’s perfect first chapter.

  2. Laura Manivong

    Totally agree about this example. Phenomenal book, and an amazing breakdown of what makes it that way.

  3. lishacauthen

    Thanks ladies. It is hard to read. Nancy is such a great writer, you are right there with the characters. But boy-howdy, did I learn a lot about writing.

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