We've visited this topic before, but it's worth another look.
The school day ended as it had begun with the tin rattle of an ancient bell system designed to wake the dead or anyone within a football field of the boxy building.
True story. It’s how I spend my workday sixteen times over, five days a week.
Only once, do you make the mistake to stand directly beneath one of the clattering devils.
However, the jolting rattles own your attention, and there’s no doubt it’s time to get to class.
Oh for the clang of a great story opening. Previously, I’ve shared my favorite YA openers.
This week, my last group of creative writing students for the year works on story beginnings. In a few weeks, we’ll tackle endings.
How do you start your stories? With action? Mystery? Deep thoughts? Humor? Here are our favorites.
Reflect on life. No one does this better than YA it boy, John Green.
“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.” –Paper Towns by John Green
Reveal theme. For my students, Walter Dean Meyers has a knack for setting up his stories' themes right at the start.
“The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way even if you sniffle a little they won’t hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they’ll start talking about it and soon it’ll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.” –Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Meet our hero/heroine. My favorite adult and young adult author, Neil Gaiman, is a master at opening his stories. One of my favorites:
“There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.” –Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Meet someone important/close to our hero/heroine. The people we love to hate from the delightful imagination of J.K. Rowling.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” -Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Begin with trouble. Many of today's dystopians begin this way, reminiscent of war stories detailing actual history.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. - The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Begin with a mystery. Make your readers want to know why right from the very first line.
"All this happened. More or less." -Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
"You better not tell nobody but God." - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
What's your favorite way to open a story? Share them in the comments below.
How many times have you backed into the front door? It's not a trick question. I will take a wild guess, however, and say - never. Okay, maybe that one time when you carted in grandma's lacquered dining table. Other than that, though, most people walk in the front door faced forward. Eyes forward.
Remember that when penning the opening of your next story.
Expositions set the foundation for what's to come, but they also invite the reader in. So open that door and invite!
This past week, I've been furiously and back-achingly editing and revising my latest manuscript. (What do you think of my new opening?)
Here's a down and dirty list of what I think you need in the first five pages.
Exposition Must Haves:
*click the headings for great YA examples of each trait
1. A world - immediately drop readers into your characters' world. Where are we? Let us smell, taste and live it. Not too much. Just enough so we feel included and safe. (Remember: show, don't tell. Not: It was April 3, 2016, and the San Francisco Chronicle sat on the kitchen table. Try: I trolled the Internet for last night's A's results. Can't Billy Beane keep any player for more than two seasons?)
2. A Hero/Heroine - who are we going to root for? What's that MC have that I don't? Can I relate? Don't make him too perfect. (Not: Lilly Lane studied her third A paper of the day while she waited for Skip Target, the Tigers' star pitcher and a sure bet for Prom King. Try: Lilly Lane shoved the history test in her backpack. One C wouldn't kill her. If she scored an A on the next exam, maybe she could convince Skip Target she'd make a great tutor.)
3. A Catalyst - drop that shoe! We need to know what's at stake for our hero pronto! If you're not going to tell us until the end of the first or second chapter, you better leave us a trail of juicy clues. (Your catalyst is the event that sparks the plot. Something happens that propels the hero on his quest. If she's the school bully's favorite victim, maybe she gets suspended for a food fight that she didn't start. If he's depressed to the point of suicide, maybe he's sent to the school counselor who suggests he join their support group. The catalyst can be subtle or mind-blowing.)
4. A Problem - this we need to learn on the first page or three. I mean, what's going on that we care if there's another page to this story? If the problem is multi-layered, just give us one layer. In the "Wizard of Oz", Dorothy runs away and needs to get home. That's the main problem. Of course, she has several other adolescent troubles that lead to her leaving in the first place. (Problems can unfold, disappear or appear solved, reemerge with a vengeance, multiply or simplify - any or all of that happens as your story progresses, not in the first three pages.)
Inclusive in all is VOICE. Must have voice. That's not an exposition kind of thing, though. Voice carries your story from start to finish, so I don't include it in my Exposition Must Haves (but it most certainly is a MUST HAVE).
Share your WIP's first 100 words below. What are your Exposition Must Haves?
If you are like most writers, you read everything about writing that falls into your field of vision. Perhaps not everything you read makes sense. Or is that just me? When I first started out, I trolled the net for blogs and columns and articles and theses about what makes a good story. I quickly schooled myself in elements of the modern novel - something I didn't learn from my few college level creative writing classes.
Everything made sense. Focus on plot or character. Paint a vivid world. Speak like normal people speak (whatever that is). Write what you know - sibling rivalry, demonic perfectionistic zombies, love, broken hearts, etc.
Everything made sense except for one thing. The character arc. The character arc meeting another character's arc. Matching or paralleling or crossing your character's arc to or with your plot's rise, fall and resolution.
During my studies, I've narrowed character arcs into three categories. Let's take a look at them.
1. Transformative Journey. Called many things, namely The Hero's Journey, this character arc sees your MC move from a bit of a mess at the start to pretty much on her feet at the end. Think of Julia Robert's character in "Pretty Woman". At the start, she's selling herself on the street, lacking social graces, living in a rundown apartment. At the end, she's cleaned up, thinking of moving out and changing her profession (of course, handsome Richard Gere "saves" her - that was too obvious), but more importantly she's transformed from street girl to sophisticate. In this arc, your character needs to learn something about herself or the world that rocks her so much, she's forced to embody a whole new persona by story's end. This is more of a straight up arrow - the arc is in the middle where your character must examine her flaws that keep her from moving forward in life. (Of course, one can argue that it's Gere's character that truly transforms from self-important loveless power chaser to empathetic love chaser.)
2. Imperfect or Flawed Journey. When I read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Goldfinch", I kept thinking that Theo, the MC, wasn't so much on that traditional Hero's Journey. He had many bumps on his road to redemption. In fact, he travelled much further down in his person than up. His was an imperfect journey. Your character can learn much more about himself if he's forced to confront deeper issues in his life (envy, hatred, self-hate).
3. Spiral to Darkness. Sometimes, you read a story and think, "Wow, I really don't like this character. He's more of a jerk now than at the start." Hopefully (usually) that was the author's intention. Think of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". We don't much have anyone to root for when the story shifts in the middle. By the end, we feel cheated out of that arc. Who transformed? Who's learned the most about themselves and used it for the better good of the world? Uh, no one? This is a difficult arc to pull off because you want the reader to feel something has changed, that perhaps the world has shifted for them. In "Gone Girl", most readers come away thinking "you can't trust anyone" or "some people are nuts" or "be careful who you get into a relationship with". What happened was they went on a somewhat inverted arc journey - essentially, they transformed into more negative shadows of themselves. However you see it, taking a character deeper into their own darkness can be an amazing story.
Where is your current protagonist headed in your work in progress? Is it a transformative arc, imperfect or a spiral into darkness? Share your thoughts below.
This isn't new advice. You've heard it before, but did you listen?
The first story I wrote in college was about a sculptor who created a bust of her blind brother so he could feel his face like she did.
I'm not a sculptor. I don't have a blind brother. My professor guessed as much. He said the story lacked luster; it was missing authenticity.
He was right.
It's not that I can't write a story with a blind character, but the heart of the story needs to be mine.
My first YA, "This Girl Climbs Trees", was described by Publisher's Weekly as a "semi-autobiographical narrative with literary leanings". Well, maybe. When I think about my college prof's comments. Yes. The nuggets aren't really my life, but the essence, the themes are. Growing up, I questioned everything - life, death, boys, myself. (PW also said it wouldn't hold readers' attentions. My readers say they are wrong.)
My second novel, "Birds on a Wire", follows three teen boys and their struggles with their own identities. One comes out, one loses his temper, the other struggles with love and friendship. Not quite tales from my adolescence, but the underlying themes - yes. In high school, I worked hard balancing friendships and boys; I sought to understand the value of my family v. my friends.
I am writing what I live. Don't expect the plots are me; do expect the central messages are.
My third YA, "Clothed in Flames" (currently in the loving hands of editor Jane MacKay), drops us into the crowded mind of a girl who hears voices and thinks a fictional character can help her find the dad she's never met. (Not my story - not even close. Well, okay, all writers hear voices, yes?) However, the message about love, family, believing in yourself - that's me. That's what I live.
So, yes, Professor Boyle, you were correct. Yes, Neil Gaiman, you, too, are spot on! We must write what we live. Where we live is in our hearts.
What's important to you? Make a list. Write one of those stories. The plot is the vehicle that carries your message. Write what you live.
Share your thoughts here.
This week, I respond to Charli Mills' invitation to answer the question: Why do I write?
As the summer winds down and another new school year nears, I feel the shakes begin. My summer morning break of dawn habit is about to die out, hibernate for another 9 months, lurk and twist beneath my itching derma. My writing habit must quiet and slow.
It's not how I want it; it's how it must be. I will certainly try to wake a half hour earlier, in the predawn darkness of my warm bed, slither out onto the floor and feel in the blackness for my one-eyed blinking laptop. Some days will merit worth, others will succumb to the nurturing folds of that maternal duvet.
I write because it is my soul's path.
Back in the 70s when I was a school girl, I'd lay across my bedroom floor's pink shag carpet and scribble out verses and stories and diary entries. Any school assignment that required writing, I could do it in my sleep. (Math lessons left me in fits of tears at my father's feet.)
I write because it fills my being with joy.
As that same girl, I would also spend summers in the pool. When not in the pool, I'd be on my bike pedaling to the library. Reading filled my imagination, connected me to worlds I hadn't encountered, drew me into lives of wonder. Fueled by the ideas of Judy Blume, E.B.White, Roald Dahl, I soon found myself bursting with my own tales to pen. When my English teachers encouraged my work, there was no stopping me.
I write because it helps me make sense of a senseless world.
Navigating through adolescence is never easy. It's the theme of most of my books. Again, my path cleared with the help of writers: Austen, Salinger, Lee, and the Bronte sisters. I soon understood that writers had a greater purpose. Writers help us find connections to ourselves and others. They provide us with a foundation when the ground beneath us is cracking. Writers open us up to worlds unknown and offer personal portals to the very confusing world we live in.
I write for the same reasons that I breathe. Without it, I'd cease to be.
I'd like to introduce you to three other writers whose pen has touched my heart. Please visit them. I'd love to hear your comments, too. Why do you write?
Natalie Corbett Sampson Natalie Corbett Sampson lives in Hatchet Lake, Nova Scotia with her husband, four school-aged Munsters and a menagerie of pets. Her day job is a speech language pathologist where she loves helping children improve their ability to communicate with the world around them. When she’s not working, writing or sitting in a hockey rink Natalie loves reading, photography and drawing. You can learn more about Natalie and follow her publishing journey on her blog: www.NatalieCorbettSampson.com.
Ruben Castaneda is a Los Angeles native and former award-winning journalist for the Washington Post. His first book, "S Street Rising", chronicles his time covering the 1980s and 90s crack epidemic in our nation's capital while battling his own addiction with the drug. Ruben mentored me on the Los Angeles Herald Examiner where we covered the outbreak of gang violence and innocent victims caught in the crossfire.
Samantha Williams's first novel is due out later this year. She is the co-founder of PageCurl Publishing, a group of writers who publish and promote indie writers.
I have been working on my third YA novel for nearly seven months. About four weeks ago, I reached a pivotal point, just over what I believe is the halfway mark. I’m still there. Okay, maybe I’ve added another 700 words or so.
Basically, I’m stuck (was stuck).
I usually have lots of tricks to unstick myself, but none of those seemed to be helping. Not until I tried something new.
I knew that.
Thing is, there’s no formula that works for every story. So although #8 worked this time, it might not work in my next roadblock. I’ve read some great ideas from fabulous writers that worked on other pieces, but not on this one.
That’s because I needed to do something different.
I plan on getting stuck again. In anticipation of this inevitable event, I decided to make a list of possible unstickers; more importantly, I wanted to share them with you.
1. Introduce a new character – major or minor, doesn’t matter; someone who will interact with your protagonist (or antagonist); could be a store clerk, a cop, long-lost cousin, former teacher, mailman.
2. Change the weather – move in storm clouds or clear them away; feel a sudden gust kick up; notice a funnel cloud in the distance.
3. Hear something – a dog bark, a siren, a scream, a laugh, glass breaking.
4. See something – a child’s bike, scattered playing cards, a woman’s scarf, the back of someone’s head, a red car turn the corner.
5. Smell something – burning, sweet, bitter.
6. Remember something – someone’s birthday, a dental appointment.
7. Forget something – locking the backdoor, charging a cell phone, someone’s birthday, a dental appointment.
8. Have your MC do something ordinary - ring the doorbell or the phone.
9. Have your MC do something unordinary – order a redeye instead of a decaf, stop in the dollar store instead of the usual liquor store.
10. Have your MC do something extraordinary – run in the street to save a kid from being hit, chase a purse-snatcher, scare away a bear.
Once you begin this new event or action, let it unfold. Continue adding detail – sensory detail – and watch where it takes your plot. You might be surprised.
I’m sure your wheels are turning and you’ve already thought of another handful to add to this list. Please do! Add your ideas in the comments section. What works for you?
We're a full month into spring, and I can smell summer's surf and sun already. What's on your reading list!
As a writer of YA, and someone who is more A than Y, I try to keep up with popular reads. If I want to write what young people want to read, I need to read what they like. Since I must also balance my life, and since I have so many books I want to read (adult fiction, biographies, books on writing), I am quite choosy on my YA.
Fortunately, the other day, I happened upon a lively discussion of YA books to read with writers, editors and readers on #StoryDam (Tuesdays at 5PST) via @StoryDam. I now have a whole collection on my Goodreads YAtoRead list!
Today, I'm sharing FIVE with you:
1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - a friendship forms amidst WWII (theme: friendship) Read if you liked "Flygirl" by Sherri Smith.
2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - a foster girl steals to survive in WWII London (theme: responsibility, kindness) Read if you liked "The Diary of Anne Frank".
3. Mickey Harte Was Here by Barbara Park - a sister must deal with her brother's early death (theme: death, choices) Read if you liked "My Sister's Keeper" by Jodi Piccoult.
4. Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark - a boy feels more like a girl struggles to be himself - and tell his girlfriend (theme: sexual identity) Read if you liked "Forever" by Judy Blume or "Openly Straight" by Bill Knoigsburg.
5, Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard - Alex tries to deal with his best friend's drowning (themes: death, friendship, guilt) Read if you liked "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles.
Don't stop here...start reading! Share your reviews or other ideas for summer reads here or with me on Twitter.com/thisgirlclimbs.