Beginnings Part 1

You know what’s the worst? When I read a query and it sounds AWESOME and then this happens:

“Once there was a boy named Pauline who did an extraordinary thing that you can’t wait to read about, and before I can tell you anything about that, I must explain the entire history of his life from the day he was born, plus the whole rest of his town and family. You see, there was this house. It was a gigantic Gothic thing, built by Dr. Gormless von Bandcamp, Pauline’s mother’s father’s father…” And then approximately five more pages of this before anything resembling the real story starts.

I feel like I’ve been duped. I’ve been offered a story about a kid doing something extraordinary, and what I’m getting is backstory. Which is like getting backwash when someone offers you a sip of cool, refreshing lemonade. And you know what happens if I can’t skim the bliz blaz to quickly find the real story? I stop reading.

You know how They say to start in the action? Yes, do that. It’s a very good idea. Ungrounded, random narration with nary a character to connect to is as disorienting as opening a door into zero-g. I wonder why it’s happening, and when there will be something to grab onto so I can stay upright.

Starting in the action doesn’t mean opening with your character running to catch a speeding train, but I will dedicate another post to that. I mean that a scene should open on a character doing something; delivering cookies to a homeless person via unicycle; changing the toilet paper roll, it doesn’t entirely matter. Readers are pretty smart, they’ll catch on. And when they do, you can layer in the backstory as you go along, revealing exciting things at moments that maximize the information.

Beginning at the beginning doesn’t mean the beginning of time, or of someone’s life, or even (especially?) when they wake up in the morning. It might take some thinking to figure out what the real beginning of your story is. But you’re a writer, and good portion of writing is thinking, yeah? Look for that thing that sets off a chain of events and start slightly before that. It’s the difference between a tome and a page-turner.

Don’t be dense.




I Like Big Buts (and Therefores)

I have a confession that may polarize my readers, but here it is nonetheless: I like South Park. Sure, it’s sometimes vulgar, but I like the social commentary, and the fact that they put out episodes in just a week, so it always feels timely. And some of the simplest and best writing advice I’ve heard comes from a talk the creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, did at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.

It’s been around for a few years, so you may have already seen it, but if not, and if you don’t feel like watching the video, here’s the gist: If your story goes something like “A happened and then B happened and then C happened”, change all of those and thens to buts and therefores. So now your story goes “A happened, but then B happened, therefore C happened.” And that’s a much more engaging story, doncha think?

Aaaand ACTION!

I read a lot of YA manuscripts that are super interesting. Great premise, smart, insightful writing, nicely developed character arcs, marvelous dialogue. But they just aren’t working.

Interrobang! (WHAT!?)

It’s true. More than once I’ve read a manuscript I really like but for one fatal flaw: nothing happens. I’d say, when I was an editor, this was the number one reason a manuscript got the gong at acquisitions.

In picture books, it’s generally pretty easy to spot. Texts in which nothing happens usually come in the form of a list. It might be a list of things a kid does in a day. It might be a list of something that kid loves. Maybe it’s a list of traits they enjoy in their menagerie of monster friends. But a list isn’t a plot.

It takes a bit longer to identify in middle grade and young adult novels. I’m usually reading along for a while, enjoying some great banter, the dialogue carrying me away like the best late-night conversation with a friend. But then I realize, the scene is a late night conversation between friends. And so was the last one. And the one before that was at lunch. And the one before that was in the car on the way to lunch.

It’s a trap some of the best writers fall into. Scenes of people discussing things that have happened off-page are stories in which nothing actually happens. I want to see the character actually run their grocery cart into the ankles of their crush, setting off a chain of events they have to react to, instead of telling their sister about it the next day over mochaccinos at the mall. A next-day dialogue (or whenever it happens) removes the reader from the scene, creating an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the action.

Here’s a little test to tell if your manuscript has enough action: act it out, or at least imagine it as a play. If your scene is of your protag whispering deep thoughts at the library, it’s not so fun to watch. The conversation might reveal a lot, but it’s a bit of a snooze for the reader. If your protag is at the library whispering, and then decides to throw a paper airplane at the jerk librarian (just kidding, all librarians are the coolest), that’s action. If that happened on stage, it would be fun to watch, and it likely makes something else happen.

It’s not the most exciting example, but I think you understand that your character needs to do things. Do things that lead to other things, I mean. Because sure, stirring mochaccino foam and sighing and thinking are technically action, but a whole play of that would be pretty tedious. We’d be in a pretty weird place if Nike had told us to Just Talk About Doing It.