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opening your story–where to start your novel

Alrighty then. You need a whiz-bang a-number-one first sentence that draws your reader in. Makes him/her sit up and and say, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

That’s a given.

But where, exactly, in the story, do you start?

HINT: Not at the very beginning.

Little Red Riding Hood does not start with the first time Little Red takes a basket to her grandmother, or the first time The Wolf eats a kid.

Harry Potter doesn’t start with Voldemort killing Harry’s parents.

Catcher in the Rye doesn’t start with Holden Caulfield’s arrival at Pencey Prep.

Your reader does not want to wade through all the backstory to get to the interesting bits. That’s your job.

Begin your novel on the day that is different.

Look at the point in the story these kidlitters chose to start:

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith: The day Jonah and Simon leave their home to meet up with their brother and father.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Reaping Day

Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong: The night Vonlai and his family cross the Mekong River to escape Laos.

Plunge your readers into the thick of it, and don’t explain everything.

Give them a reason to turn the page.


in the path of falling objects: the sandwich book

There’s no prison worse than “I promise.”

A promise can carry you through tough times.

Or cause them.

Jonah and Simon, two abandoned brothers, set out to rendezvous with a third brother coming back from Vietnam. The only guarantee they have of meeting up with him is in his letters.

The boys hitch a ride on the highway with Mitch and Lilly. As the story unspools they figure out that Mitch is a psychopath. Lilly’s a flirt. She likes to push Mitch’s buttons.

Jonah tries to keep the promise he made to his older brother, to keep Simon safe. Like all little brothers, Simon doesn’t like getting bossed around. Mitch encourages Simon’s minor rebellions, coaxes them into bitter hatred for Jonah. Who would blame Jonah if he just walked away?

Well, there’s that promise.


Andrew Smith’s second book is gut-punching good. Each chapter is labeled with the character whose point of view it’s written in. Not necessary. Because every character’s voice is so distinct you can tell them apart without a scorecard.  The attention to setting puts you right in the desert southwest without getting artsy-fartsy. And the Vietnam letters have heart-breaking historically accurate touches.

Andrew writes really fast. His third book came out last November: The Marbury Lens. It has been named one of the Best Children’s Fiction Books of 2010 by Publisher’s Weekly, and is on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list 2010, just like his other two books. And he’s got more in the pipeline.

I’m kind of afraid Andrew’s second book, In the Path of Falling Objects might have been overlooked because it was sandwiched between book one and three, way close to The Marbury Lens release date.


That is an order.

book report #11: letting boys be boys

smellthetestosterone Wow.

Just finished Ghost Medicine, by Andrew Smith.

Did I mention, “Wow” ?

This is YA Guylit for manly men.  As the cover promises, the story is about friends, enemies, heroes and blood. But it’s…so…mindful.  It’s downright…now don’t take this the wrong way…lyrical.

Wait!  Come back here!  I didn’t say it was sappy.  Or girly.

It’s thoughtful.  Andrew Smith takes his time, lets the story unspool at a steady pace.  Lulls you into a feeling of security that ends up being false.

Smith provides the type of detail that proves he knows how to handle horses, dig post holes, handle a gun.  The characters chew tobacco, experiment with alcohol.

They are downright naughty.

But naughty doesn’t mean bad.  Smith portrays the passage to manhood without apology.  No one has to learn a politically correct lesson, though there are plenty of lessons learned.  I hate to call this book a “coming of age novel”.   That’s a flat description of this rich, immersive story.

I’ve got to admit that having read Smith’s breezy blog, I was surprised by the voice.    It took several pages for me to settle into the rhythm of the book, trust the author to take me where I needed to go.  Glad I did, because the setting became so real to me, I could swear I’d visited the Benavidez spread myself.  The pace of the book matches the narrator, Troy Stotts, a boy whose life revolves around ranching.  And you can’t hurry those things.  Horses.  Guns.  Hard, physical labor.

Troy isn’t a scholar, but he’s a deep thinker.  And we get to share his thoughts as he endures incredible trials that make him into a man.

Ghost Medicine teems with interesting characters.  The powerful rancher, who doesn’t appreciate the strength in his own son.  The widowed teacher, who just wants to hide.  The lazy sheriff.  Good people.  Bad people.  Ambivalent people.  Every character seems fresh, every bit of dialogue rings true.

Just found out that Ghost Medicine has been picked as one of  the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults of 2009.

Really not surprised.

Guys, I’m talking to you.  There’s probably stuff in here your moms don’t like.

But I bet your dads do.

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