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The All-Important Beginning and a Call for Submissions

I’m reading this great book called HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest Books. It is awesome. Not only does Les have a great teacher’s voice, he gets into the nitty gritty of just why beginnings are so important, and then tells his readers how to nail this crucial part of their novels (he also talks about beginnings in terms of short stories, but most of his advice is geared toward novelists).

At the awesome NJ SCBWI conference this past weekend (I have such a blast every year, if you haven’t gone yet, go!), a writer asked a similar question during the Saturday morning agent panel. Why do we request what we do and how much can we tell from a writer’s beginning? Another writer said that her novel had a slow start but got really good about 15 pages in, and she wanted advice on how to get agents and editors to that point.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: your beginning is the most important thing you’ll write. And often rewrite, and rewrite. Not your query letter, your beginning. It’s also of the most difficult, because not a lot of people know how to write a killer beginning. You hear me, you query-obsessed writers?! So not only is there a lot of pressure on your writing and scenework and characterization, there’s also a lot of pressure because, without fail, the beginning is what makes you or breaks you in terms of attracting a reader’s attention. This is true whether that reader is an agent, editor, or a kid picking your book off the shelf and skimming the first page when trying to decide whether it’s working or not and whether she should buy it.

If you think of yourself as a slow starter, or if you know that everyone starts their story with the character waking up but you want to do it anyway (because you, of all people, have the perfect excuse), or if you find yourself starting with a lot of exposition, or if your beginning moves so fast (a rare but different problem) that the reader isn’t feeling grounded, or if you keep getting rejected after sending writing samples, or if your action-packed prologue drops off to reveal a first chapter drained of tension, or if people tell you that they really get into the story, but later, your beginning isn’t working.

To that, I’ll add a common problem that I’ve been seeing all over the place lately: if you either start a new scene in a different setting or if you go into a flashback within the first two pages, you’re not starting in the right place. Start in the right place and stay there for a bit before yanking us away from it, yeah?

So…what do you do about your beginning? Most writers rewrite theirs over and over and over again. By the time you reach the end of your story, you’ll most likely have to zip over to the start and change the whole thing in keeping with what you’ve learned since you first wrote it. You can also read HOOKED. Or you can send your beginnings to me and I’ll randomly pick five to dissect on the blog.

That’s right. It’s been a while since I’ve asked for any writing samples from my readers. I’ve already done a beginnings contest (and a post on beginnings), but now I want to do a beginnings workshop. Here’s how you participate:

  1. Copy and paste your first 500 words only into an email message. We’ll focus on MG and YA here, sorry picture books.
  2. Subject line: Kidlit Beginnings (do not put the words “query” or “submission” anywhere near the subject line or it will go into my slush and I won’t find it and you don’t get to participate).
  3. Don’t tell me anything about plot or character in a cover letter…the beginning has to do that work for you.
  4. Send it off to mary at kidlit dot com before Friday, June 17th. If you don’t get it in in time, you don’t get to participate. Not because I’m not nice, but because other people will have figured out how to follow directions and I want to reward them.

I will choose five beginnings to showcase on the blog. I’ll attribute them to your name. So don’t send me something unless you want it to appear on the blog, with your name. As I’ve done in the past with queries and beginnings, I will give you constructive notes, and everyone will learn from them. I’ll be choosing beginnings based on the teaching opportunities they give me, so it is not a reflection of you as a writer or a person if your submission is or is not chosen to be workshopped. Being chosen doesn’t mean it’s bad or good, neither does it being not chosen, etc. Let the beginnings games begin, and go read HOOKED by Les Edgerton (but not before you submit your beginning, because then I’ll have nothing to teach you)!

ETA: Sorry, guys! About 100 writers were too fast and sent in samples already and, since I’m only going to do 5 workshops, that is so much more than I need. If I keep this opportunity open, I will just disappoint that many more people. If you didn’t get your sample in to me, please don’t despair…I will do more workshop opportunities again soon. Again, so sorry. I know how frustrating it is to have someone announce something and then take it back, but I just can’t, in good conscience, solicit more work at this time.



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