Monday, February 16, 2015

Hooking the Reader in the First Chapter

So, no pressure or anything, but it turns out that first chapters are pretty important. Readers don’t want to wait until page 50 for a book to get good.

Luckily, there’s a contest to help writers with their opening pages. We are delighted to have been asked to be judges in the Freshly Squeezed C1Blitz contest for emerging YA writers. We’ve learned so much from contests ourselves and we’re more than happy to give back in the name of good karma. 

As part of the contest, we’ve been asked to share tips for killer opening pages. We’ve spent plenty of time on the revision process for the first chapters of our manuscripts, so we’ve definitely got some thoughts on what to do and what not to do. In addition, it happens that I just finished volunteering at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where I attended some great panel discussions that touched on this subject.

So here are a few things to think about:

You only get one shot with a young reader. Teenagers aren’t exactly known for patience. If they aren’t hooked in the first page, or even the first paragraph, they could very well put the book down. Better yet, come up with an awesome first sentence.

Make sure the first chapter is active and full of energy, so that the story compels the reader to keep turning the pages. A reader needs to feel an instant connection to the protagonist, and a desire to find out what happens next, so the first chapter should set up who the main character is and the conflict or problems that they may soon face.

Be careful not to get bogged down in backstory details, or lengthy in-depth physical descriptions. Go ahead and hint at things or give clues to a character’s past, but don’t force-feed a reader every single detail at the beginning in the form of an info-dump. Sprinkle backstory details into the action, but keep it moving!

Your novel needs to start in the right place in the story. It’s not always easy to figure out where that place is, though. What you think might be the beginning when you first sit down to write, might actually be backstory. Sometimes the first 10, 20, or 50 pages are just warm-up – an exercise in character development (which is often very valuable time spent as a writer) - but not where the real action begins.

Whatever you do, don’t start with a dream, or running through the forest, or looking out a car window on the way to a new town, or moving into a new house. Unless you can make an opening like this totally unique, it will read like a cliché. (Note, we’ve made pretty much all these rookie mistakes. Learn from our experience, young Jedi.)

Don’t forget voice. We want to root for your character and get a real sense of who they are. A fantastic, strong, unique voice that jumps off the page will make us want to keep reading.

Lastly, go to the library or bookstore (or download the free sample pages of eBooks) and read the first chapter of as many books in your genre as possible. You’ll quickly get a sense of what works and why – it will be clear which novels you want to keep reading and which you could easily pass on. Some of our favorite first chapters include those of Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. In terms of pace, mystery, action, voice, and conflict, these are delicious examples of great opening chapters.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day Post: On Toxic Characters

In the lead-up to the release of Fifty Shades of Grey film, there has been a lot of talk about the casting, the acting, and the adaptation of the book into a film, but the thing I’ve been thinking about most is this: what is a writer’s responsibility to the reader?

It’s easy to make the argument that Ana and Christian’s relationship is emotionally and physically abusive, but the question I’m asking is whether as writers we have a moral code to avoid situations like that, or show them in a less positive light. This isn’t a diatribe on kink in books, or in people’s lives. It’s worth noting that even people within the BDSM community are upset by the book and the movie and that it is very possible to write a book about the subject in a more responsible way (see the wonderful, witty MinaVaughn, for example who writes sex-positive, female positive "kink with a wink"). 

I realize it’s a fine line. I don’t have to admire characters  or agree with their motives, but why, for instance, do I love Gone Girl without feeling like it is promoting cheating, lying, and framing your spouse, but Christian Grey gives me the creeps? 

Is it that Amy is an anti-hero and framed as damaged while Christian is more of a Byronic-romantic lead, like  Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Or is Gone Girl written more as a metaphor (i.e. marriage is hell, we’re all Nick and Amy, slowly killing each other)?

I can’t say that I know the answer for sure, but I do personally believe in putting out better vibes in the world. Especially as someone who writes for young and new adults, I wouldn’t want anyone reading something Carrie and I wrote and thinking it’s okay to let someone treat you disrespectfully or hurt you. 

Then again, are we not giving readers enough credit? Can they separate fact from fiction more easily? After all, Fifty Shades has sold millions of copies, and, as far as I know, hasn’t inspired a trend of domestic abuse. That said, if even one woman or young girl thinks it’s okay to be coerced and beaten against her will, isn’t that one woman too many? As a writer, I think it’s better safe than sorry. 

We know that the last thing a reader wants, especially a teen, is to be lectured by an adult in any form. Teenagers are cynical and smart, which is why I love writing for them. Therefore, as Carrie and I create new characters or work on existing ones, we seriously consider our responsibilities as writers and how we can create diverse, complex, characters. The characters we want to write don’t always make the right choices, but we do our best not to romanticize the wrong ones.