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.
I’ve been asked to post this article I wrote for the Institute of Children’s Literature, online. They bought the rights for one year, and the year is up. But geez, why should the world be denied my genius? *cough*
AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL: FINDING YOUR GENRE
You’ve wrestled with your demons, angsted online, joined six critique groups, and finally decided that you are a Novelist for Children. TA DAAAA!
I regret to inform you that you still have a decision to make.
Publishers often divide children’s novels into three genres according to age level: Early Chapter, Middle Grade and Young Adult. And they want to know where your work will fit on their list. Do not tell them your arresting, yet accessible novel appeals to folks 8 to 80, or you’ll find yourself sitting on the curb with a big shoe print on your keister.
Try this exercise and find out where your writing fits: Write the same fairy tale as an Early Chapter book, a Middle Grade and Young Adult novel. I used a scene from Little Red Riding Hood:
Little Red Riding Hood rapped on the door.
“Who’s there?” asked the wolf.
Little Red Riding Hood thought her Grandmother sounded funny. “You sound hoarse, Grandma. Are you sick?” she asked.
The wolf cleared his throat. “I’m not a horse, Dear Child. I’m your grandmother. Come in.”
Little Red Riding Hood tiptoed into the room. Someone hairy was in her grandmother’s bed. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t get too close. “Grandma, what big eyes you have,” she said.
“My Dear, why are you so timid? What do you think I’ll do? Bite your head off?”
Red Riding Hood loved her grandmother, but she didn’t want to be here today. She had a soccer game in less than an hour. She banged on the door.
That doesn’t sound like Grandma, she thought. Grandma always sounds sweet, even if her bunions are acting up. “It’s me. Red Riding Hood.”
“Come in!” called the voice.
I don’t like this one bit, thought Red Riding Hood, but she went in anyway.
She almost fainted when she looked into the rumpled covers. Red Riding Hood didn’t know who this was, but it sure wasn’t her grandma. “Uh—uh—gosh, Grandma. Your eyes are poppin’ out of your head today.”
The wolf snuggled its snout under the blankets. “Don’t question your elders, Kid. Shut up and do what you’re told.”
“My mother sucks,” said Red. “I can’t believe she’s making me take this craptaculous stuff to Gram. Doesn’t she know that Edward is waiting for me? Hiding in the shadows in my room, ready to hold me tenderly while I sleep?” Red kicked the door.
“MMMMmmmmm,” said a strange voice.
Stupid grandmother. She doesn’t like Edward. Just because he’s undead doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. He does care! He loves me just for me! Not because I smell tremendously delicious and have super-special blood pulsing in my neck that stretches the limits of his self-control.
Red shoved the door open. Before the wolf could speak, Red said, “I don’t care what you think! Edward would never hurt me! He’s good! And I want him to bite me and make me one of the undead too!”
“Don’t talk to me about Edward,” the wolf growled.
Red stepped closer, closer. “Why, your eyes…they’re so brown, so wild…”
“Think so?” he whispered.
Maybe you can tell that writing the Early Chapter and Middle Grade excerpts was a chore for me. But the YA. Ah, that spurted from my fingertips like—like blood from a severed artery.
While you’re sampling the genres, remember:
- Children’s writers are supposed to write as if THEY are the age of the audience they’re writing for. Do not dwell on whether it’s proper for a 30-year-old mom to feel like a 9-year-old boy.
- Your natural genre is the one that is easiest for you to channel from your subconscious. Figure out what age you feel like when you’re writing. Writers often discover their work in progress belongs to a different genre than they originally thought.
- Find books similar to what you want to write. See which age genre appeals to you. Children’s books have evolved tremendously, so be sure the books you read are no older than 5 years. Once you know your audience, read 1,000 books in that genre. That is not a typo. 1,000. See what the norms are and why they work. Then study the exceptions and when to use them.
Before you retire to the mud room and pull your lawn chair up to the ironing board you use as a desk, look over these brief descriptions of the three age genres of children’s novels:
EARLY CHAPTER (ages 7-11)
- First books that kids read completely on their own.
- They want to read about a character who’s like them, or in situations like theirs.
- ACTION! The act of reading itself isn’t intoxicating anymore.
- Sentences are a bit complex, but paragraphs run 2-4 sentences.
- Usually, a thread runs from chapter to chapter.
MIDDLE GRADE (ages 8-12)
- Main character focuses inward. These readers are working on their own identities, who they are and what they think, while their relationships and bodies change.
- Conflicts often involve friendships, school, siblings.
- The main character must grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are internal.
- Don’t worry about word choice or sentence structure. Middle graders are good readers. Stories may involve subplots involving secondary characters woven through the story.
- This audience gets addicted to characters. Consider writing a series with the same cast of players.
- Use hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader turning the page.
- Complex plots with several major characters, though one emerges as the focus of the book. You must make the reader identify with your main character right away. That’s why so many YA novels are first person.
- Everything is HUGE! EPIC! Teens have no perspective, no sense that bad times will pass and the world will go on. Every situation is new.
- YA readers are stepping outside of their hearth and home, and they want to read about characters whose internal change comes from external events. They want to see how the conflict affects the main character, and how the main character affects the world.
- Be subtle. YA readers are smart enough to figure things out for themselves.
- Be ruthless. Impale your main character on the merciless horns of a dilemma. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
Experiment and find your best age genre. You’ll access your creativity faster, your writing will be stronger and I’m pretty sure bluebirds will light on your shoulder.
Let’s talk a bit about writing today, shall we?
I’ve been working on an exercise for a master class Kansas SCBWI will be hosting in May. I wrote paragraphs summarizing each scene in my novel.
That was a lot of frickin’ scenes.
I haven’t even had the class yet, but I can tell you a few things I’ve learned about scene just from doing the exercise.
In every scene:
- Something has to happen–Sounds like a “duh” statement, doesn’t it? But how many books have you read that drone on and on and on with nothing happening except the polishing of the author’s ego? You might get away with that in adult literature, but not kidlit. Your reader will toss you so fast you’ll be in the remainder bin before you can say “Pulp me, baby.”
- The story has to advance–Plot must be propelled forward. It’s not enough to have noise and chaos, there’s got to be purpose. How are you going to get to the end if you don’t point your compass and go? Meandering does not intrigue, it BORES YOUR READER TO DEATH. Remember when your great-uncle would tell you a story about fighting in muddy, rat-infested trenches in World War I and then your great-grandmother would interrupt to say, “While you were off in Gay Paree I was home rolling bandages. I’d take the train to the Red Cross Center. Cousin Wally drove a yellow car but he wrecked it when he got drunk one night and drove through Frank and Lana’s Dry Goods. Calico everywhere, I tell you…” Yeah. Same thing.
- The characters should reveal themselves–Every word characters utter and action they execute reveals information about them. Do not squander these tools.
- There has to be a climax–Not only does the novel have a story arc, not only does the chapter have a story arc, but the scene has a story arc too. I know. It’s ridiculous, but true. I could hardly believe it myself. Look in one of your most dramatic scenes. Note the rising action. Then spot the point where things come to a head–and afterward, the tension ebbs. Yup. Climax. Make your own jokes.
OMG! WRITING IS SO COMPLICATED! I QUIT!
Who said that? Don’t say that.
Human beings are natural story tellers. For the most part, IF YOU WRITE AND WRITE AND WRITE, you will fall into a rhythm of writing scenes in story arcs.
Sometimes it’s good to study what you’re doing right, even if it comes to you naturally. Because sometimes you screw up, and how are you going to know how to fix it if you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place?
So I went shopping yesterday with my BFF from the old days, when I was in the PTA and had to pretend I was a pillar of the community. We ended up snagging my Kansas SCBWI Conference toggery.
It was a tussle.
Seems the word “conference” confused the stuffing out of my non-children’s-writer friend. I tried on various permutations of blouses, tank tops, jackets and sweaters.
“That looks good. Very slimming,” said BFF.
“Oh I like that one. You look so professional,” said BFF.
“I do? Forget it!” I don a goth t-shirt with flowing wrap. “Oooo. This one. Do they have it in blacker?”
My BFF said, “…”
It’s not her fault. She’s a grown-up. Works in a real office, with a boss and budgets and all that drudgery. Wears pantyhose and lined jackets.
I can’t imagine.
Next, the purse. I won’t bore you with the particulars. Suffice to say, BFF pushed really hard for this:
And I ended up with this:
By the time we got to the reading glasses at the bookstore, BFF swore off giving me any more opinions. (Oh, please. Pull the other one. You done stretched this one as far as it will go.)
I had it down to two: a royal blue pair that made my sunken green eyes pop strikingly, and a bizarre pair of aqua steampunkish glasses crafted in awesome.
“Lisha, you’ve got to get the blue ones. They make your eyes shimmer!” BFF looked at me like I’d eaten her last tic-tac. Which I had, but that didn’t have anything to do with the glasses.
“Nope.” I took the steampunkery glasses to the register.
“You’re making a mistake,” BFF said, all Jacob Marley.
“I can look gorgeous, *cough* or I can look like I’ve got a million stories to tell.”
I paid the cashier and walked out the door with the price tag dangling from the nose piece.
My BFF loves it when I do stuff like that.
Technical difficulties, my little doves, kept me from posting on ye olde blogge yesterday. And today, for that matter. I will make this short and oh-so sweet.
I found Flip Footage from our last KSCBWI workshop, in March. Sandy Asher did a humdinger of a job speaking on picture books. Sandy is a jack-of-all trades, as you will find out in this brief clip. (Also, you will see she is soft-spoken. Press thine ear unto your speakers.)
First she tells us the secret of success in the publishing business:
Now, Sandy has chosen to eschew this advice. (Bless you. Handkerchief?) But I think I’m going to more or less employ it.
I went to this picture book workshop not because I write picture books–(A-HAHAHAHAHA!)–oh! my side–but because I want to be a better critiquer for my group. I took copious notes and really tried to wrap my head around what makes a great picture book. And then…
Sandy dropped the words that made the heavens open.
She shared the advice that Sue Alexander had shared with her, when Sandy was just starting out.
Picture books have to appeal to the littlest listeners,
older kids and the adults who have to read the damn
things over and over and over again.
There it is, in one sentence. The litmus test to know whether or not you have produced a great picture book.