Before you continue, there isn't really an answer to this question.
No, that's not true. There is, but it'll be different for everyone. I've read so many articles by writers and editors claiming formulas to finding your story's best place to begin, but the truth is, you won't find it until you've written the end. Even then, you will need to go through several edits and revisions until you discover it beneath layers of pre-story.
So, if you do want one answer: write your story.
Below are several original openings to a stroy I'm working on. Each time I'd found a new opening, I was sure it was the right one. Then I'd edit and revise from that point only to discover a new place to start.
My current WIP is called STARS IN MY POCKET. It's a YA Dark Contemporary. Here's my current pitch: A teen believes he must replace his dad’s telescope if he’s to earn his dead parents’ forgiveness for the horrible thing he said when they died, but doing so puts his best friend in danger.
Here's how it went down for the first hundred.
A thorny bush wraps itself around our back railing like it owns the place. I used to believe the damn spiky she-devil stole my parents. I used to kick it, spit on it, yell at. Gran always says be careful around her. Her. Like the damn bush is alive. It is, I guess. It takes stuff. Its thorns grab hold, and if you go hunting underneath, you're bound to get hurt.
So of course when I finally fish my key from my back pocket and try to jam it into the doorknob, I drop it. Right into the bush.
"Damnbit!" I'm not exactly enunciating tonight. "Idiot."
What doesn't work: Too many female unknowns in first paragraph (bush, mother, grandmother). Flow is off.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world --anger, hurt, dysfunction.
Don't they know you can't see stars with ground lights on? Lame-ass skatepark. Those stupid street lamps have the park shut down for maintenance tonight, and I'm stuck dodging cars along the overpass with my dweeb of a guardian angel.
"Hey, Guy, watch it!" Jase grabs my shoulders and pushes me out of the path of a speeding semi, but I slip in its wake.
"Asshole!" I yell, flipping the driver the bird before I faceplant into a patch of dirt.
What doesn't work: Wrong place to start. We don't need the skatepark info first. That can wait.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world--anger, hurt, risk-taking. Dialogue sets tone and pulls reader into the scene. We meet MC and his pal, setting up friendship as a theme.
In fourteen days, I’ll make my sixth journey. Hah, “journey,” what a joke. It’s like a three-minute walk from my porch, but from where I stand right now that painful patch of dirt is as far away as Orion’s Belt.
Every year, for the past five years, I’ve trekked from my back yard to a patch of dirt in the town’s vacant wash land so I can leave my parents a gift. And every year I laugh at myself, this anonymous suburbanite who will do whatever it takes to see his dead parents one more time.
What doesn't work: The goal is unclear. Sarcasm isn't working. Why is he leaving gifts? How will they help him see his parents? Why does he need to see them--besides the obvious reason? Who is this kid, and why should we care about him?
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world-- hurt, regret. Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his pain and inner turmoil. We are clear he misses his parents, that they're dead, and that he's trying to accomplish something by leaving gifts.
Round Four (and current contender:
In seven days, I’ll make my sixth pilgrimage to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them one more time. It's a journey I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I only call it a pilgrimage because I think it'll bring me peace.
It never does, and from where I stand tonight, that chance might be as far away as Orion’s Belt. In real life, it's a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry.
What doesn't work: (my question for you)
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world- hurt, regret, hopelessness, Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his inner turmoil: he misses his dead parents, and he's following some kind of legend or ritual in a book to help him earn their forgiveness.
Why this works best: We have a clear goal (earn parents' forgiveness), an obstacle (something magical needs to happen, and this is clearly an ordinary world), and sympathy (he's pained with regret for something). Finally, we have a reason to keep reading: will he achieve his goal? what will happen along the way?
What do you think? I'd love to hear which opening works and why. Please share your comments. Please also share your story's opening and why you think it does or doesn't start in the right spot.
That's my story, what's yours?
If you are a new or seasoned writer who seeks honest and constructive feedback, you might consider finding a critique partner. This writer will help you with your finished or developing manuscript. If you were ever to win an award for your story, this is one of the people you would thank.
Previously, you've heard me rave about my editor, Jane MacKay. While Jane provides constructive and detailed feedback on manuscripts and queries, I do pay her because she's a professional. And, even though I use critique partners and beta readers, I still hire Jane after they are through.
First of all, you need to know this: a critique partner is not a beta reader.
Beta Reader: someone who loves to read and can provide you with valuable feedback about your characters' authenticity, your plot's plausibility, your setting's inconsistencies, etc.
Critique Partner: a writer who wants to trade manuscripts for feedback on grammatical technicalities, style, flow, and all the beta reader stuff.
Mom: the person who loves you no matter how crappy your writing is or how many times you drop an Oxford comma.
Ryan Gosling: the guy who motivates you (or is it just me?) to get it done.
If you read between the lines, you might notice that you qualify as a critique partner for most other writers and maybe a beta reader for someone outside your genre. For instance, I write YA, but I love a good mystery. I'd be a good beta reader for mystery writers (but please don't send me a ms to read or my critique partners will hunt you down. Time is valuable.)
Currently, I'm partnering with several writers. I recently started working with aspiring YA author Brook Ellis. We met through Miss Snark's Critique Partner Dating Service (love that name!). Since three-thousand miles separates us, Brook and I exchange manuscripts via Google Docs and email. So far, it works. I'm also part of a local writer's group who met at a SCBWI event. Adult fiction writer Gwynne Jackson, picture writer and illustrator Evangeline, and I also exchange work via Google Docs. In addition, because we live within a five-mile radius, we meet monthly at someone's house.
I feel extremely fortunate to have these amazing writers in my life. Previously, I was unsure about working with a critique partner. I was embarrassed my work might not measure up; I was afraid I wouldn't have the time. Wrong. Wrong. Love, love them. When you want to, you can accomplish quite a lot.
So here are my top five reasons why you need a critique partner (CP).
A critique partner will:
1. Provide honest feedback. You are not paying them. They are not your mom. If something isn't working, or if something's truly amazing, they will let you know.
2. Have the skill to help you. Since your CPs are writers, they will not only be able to tell you where something's gone awry, they will be able to offer some pretty great suggestions on how to fix it.
3. Help you grow as a writer. Over the course of time, your CPs will become great teachers. Once they've learned your writing style, they will recognize your weaknesses and help you accentuate your strengths.
4. Not waste your time. They want what you want: good, constructive, honest feedback. If they can't provide this, they understand you might find a new partner. If you're good and helpful (because you're doing 1-3), they will make your time worth it.
5. Make you laugh. Make you cry. Mostly because of No. 1, your CP will sometimes tell you things about your writing that will make you feel so good, you'll laugh. However, every rose has its thorns. Because of No.1, your CP will also tell you some brutally honest facts about where your writing or story is falling down. The hope is that, because of No. 2, you will understand that the crying will help with No. 3.
If your relationship with your CPs look different, maybe it's not working. Remember, it's a partnership. As in any relationship, know when to get out and know when you're not doing your part.
I would love to hear your thoughts on finding and working with critique partners. Please share them in the comments below.
I'm always open to finding more CPs in order to create the best stories.
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.
Something different this Sunday. My first ever young adult writing contest.
June Writing Contest for Teens
School’s out, so now it’s time for your own assignments. When I was a teen, I loved the freedom from homework in the summertime so I could write. I kept a journal for my own wonderings and observations, but summer allowed me to write poetry and short stories. I didn’t submit them to anyone. I wrote them for myself, typed them and glued them into my creative writing journal (which I still have).
The unstructured sunny days allowed me to take the time to ponder, observe, fantasize and dream. My writing blossomed in summer because there wasn’t anyone telling me what to write. It was all me.
I’d like to give you that chance.
Here is the first ThisGirl Summer Writing Contest.
In 200 words or less, describe a best friend. Could be your real BFF, or it could be a fantasy. In prose or poetry. No other restrictions than the word count. Oh, and you must be 13 to 18 years old. Submit your entry by June 28.
Paste your entry or link below. The winner will be featured on this site’s homepage and receive acclaim on Twitter and Facebook. Each monthly summer winner will be in the running for a free signed copy of “This Girl Climbs Trees” in September.
UPDATE: CONGRATULATIONS, EMILY REEVES OF TENNESSEE FOR YOUR BEAUTIFUL ODE NOW FEATURED ON THE EXTRA BITS PAGE.
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.