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.
My dear friend Laura Manivong wrote a blog that gave me the push to post this evening.
Seems there was an extreme melt-down today on BigAl’s blog when a self-published author did not like a review she got. Not only did she argue with the reviewer, she argued with commenters, defending grammar and syntax that were obviously sub-par. She ended by hurling four-letter words.
The blog owner reacted calmly. In fact, the original review said the story was good. He answered the author’s objections a few times and then left the scene. But the author hung around to engage with the public, and she was no match.
I admit I tweeted what was going on as a lesson in what not to do when you get a bad review. But then I saw the pile-on that happened.
You would have thought she’d run over a puppy or something.
The poison people spewed on her, I couldn’t believe.
So I went to see her profile. Part of it reads:
In 2001 my English father, an artist visited me in the USA. Prior to that I hadn’t seen him for twenty years. My parents divorced when I was twelve. My Greek Mother was still traveling to Greece for short visits and visiting me here in America before she passed.
I wonder how stable things have been for her. I wonder how much of a struggle her life has been. I wonder why we think it’s okay for us to do any more than give a brief review of her book and let it go.
I don’t think this will ever happen to me, because I don’t have the energy to go ape-shit like this author did. But I tried to brainstorm what I would do if I created such a mess for myself. Problem is, once it’s on the internet, it NEVER, EVER GOES AWAY. Think twice, type once, and all that.
So help me, guys. What in the world do you think this girl could do to repair her situation?
I know you’re beginning to think we don’t do anything around here but launch books.
YOU MIGHT BE RIGHT.
Case in point: Fortune Cookies, by A Bitterman (Pete Cowdin), Illustrated by Chris Raschka.
How many authors do you know run the register at their own book party?
Chris Raschka, as I’m sure you know, is a Caldecott winner. He and Pete gave an illustrated reading of Fortune Cookies. Here’s a little taste:
Then it was time to sign books. So we lined up uncooperatively with Laura Manivong and drove Mrs. Bitterman (Debbie) insane.
FINALLY it was my turn, and I got the true scoop on how illustrator and author got together.
What was interesting about this book bash was the participants. Most book launches are attended by a small circle of writers, but Pete’s crowd was overwhelmingly composed of Reading Reptile customers.
EVERYTHING’S different when Pete Cowdin’s involved.
She had a fabu party at the Faultless Starch Company Headquarters,
replete with food, her trailer playing on a big-screen TV
and snippets of her novel scattered about in calligraphied centerpieces.
Barb gave a gracious speech, full of inspiration and gratitude:
I brought Freckles of course, star of Barb’s bookmarks:
And we had the requisite nuts in attendance…Sheila Berenson, Ann Ingalls, Laura Manivong, Elizabeth Bunce, Sarah Clark, Judy Hyde…
…and a whole lot more people who my Flip didn’t get to. I was too busy having fun.
I am a lousy chronicler, but a really good book launch party-goer-toer.
Go buy this book, dammit. If you need convincing, come back Monday for a review.
So when I edited the footage of Laura’s interview last week, I realized I never posted the stuff I took at her launch party.
It was pandemonium.
Held at the fantasmagoric Reading Reptile, we stuffed the joint. Laura had a spread of Laotian food: BBQ’d chicken legs, sticky rice, some kind of coconut rice pudding stuff, and frankly, I don’t know what all she had because the place was PACKED TO THE RAFTERS WITH PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE. I had to wait in line to get in. Where I ran into the fair Carrie Dienhart: (Warning: Her blog is for grown-ups, only.)
Well, I couldn’t wait outside forever. I WAS MISSING IT.
So I *ahem* made my way to the front to catch these snippets of Laura’s reading and Q and A for you:
Then ran into a few more writers, like Kim Peek, RA of Kansas SCBWI, Jenn Bailey, Editor of In the Wind and Social Media Maven, Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List, Bridget Heos author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larva, (due 2011) Colleen Ryckert Cook, author of three non-fiction books for Rosen on cancer, social networking and Kentucky, Lisa Wade McCormick, author of numerous books for Capstone Press in the Mysteries of Science series among a ton of other things, and Vickie Dixon, who recently won first place in the Sandy Writing contest!
As you might guess, they ran out of books. Since I am lucky enough to only live a few blocks from Reading Reptile, I ordered mine and waited for the next batch. Here is the lovely Debbie:
And now to get back to my own WIP. Because I’d like to have one of these little get-togethers, myself, one of these days.
Last Friday I started a blog-series in which I look at kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.
This week it’s Laura Manivong’s Escaping the Tiger:
Straddling the Middle-Grade /Young Adult market, Escaping the Tiger tells the story of one family’s escape from communist Laos. 12-year-old Vonlai, his sister Dalah and his parents risk their lives to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. There, they discover life in a refugee camp is anything but pleasant. They will have to conquer hunger, violence, boredom and despair in their quest to build a future where they can be free.
LAURA MANIVONG’S SUPERPOWER
She makes you feel as if you are physically present in her setting.
Maybe you’ve been in a refugee camp in southeast Asia, but I haven’t. After reading Escaping the Tiger, however, I feel like I visited there for a very long time.
1. A great way to establish setting, especially in an exotic locale, is to USE DESCRIPTIONS THAT ARE ROOTED IN THE CULTURE WHICH YOU ARE DESCRIBING. Laura does this here, where Pah tells Vonlai on the night of their escape how quietly he must walk on the way from their house to the Mekong River.
“Walk like a tiger hunting a meal. Understand?”
Notice that Laura isn’t even describing “the setting”, per se, but this one line lets you visualize an entire jungle, and Vonlai walking silently through it. As a bonus, the ferocious image of a tiger lets you feel the anxiety of carrying this order out successfully. It means life or death.
2. Laura has the distinct advantage of being married to Troy Manivong, who escaped from Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand as a young man. She had access to USE DETAILS SO SPECIFIC ONLY SOMEONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE WOULD KNOW THEM.
“His bike that had a rolled towel wired and taped on for a seat.”
Even novels that are pure fiction contain details so well thought-out they appear to be true.
3. An effective way to draw in your readers is to SHOW HOW THE SETTING AFFECTS YOUR CHARACTERS. Laura doesn’t describe the weather or living conditions anywhere in this passage:
“Inside the building, Vonlai tried to sit upright on the bench that lined the wall. Pah and Meh filled out paper-work. Dalah slouched over her own lap, her face buried behind a wall of hair that should have been washed a week ago. An oscillating fan pushed a blanket of air toward them every few seconds….
Vonlai swept palmfuls of sweat from behind his knees…
Vonlai rubbed a hand across his leg. A streak of clean skin appeared and a muddy drip of sweat fell from his hand.”
I would like a bubble bath and loofah sponge immediately, please. Ick.
Of course Laura Manivong has a lot of tricks in her bag. Pick up Escaping the Tiger to learn from her, my candidate to you as Setting-the-Reader-In-The-Book Master.
Did you know Escaping the Tiger started out as a Picture Book? What does Laura’s Manivong-family think of the book? Watch a mini-interview: