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This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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Thank you all so much for your patience as I break down some first lines from the comments and critique exercise we did the other day. Whew! Almost 200 comments and entries, from PB first lines to YA fantasy and everything in between. Here is a selection of my favorite ones, with comments from me, and then a crowning of the winners. That’s right! This contest has two winning first lines.

First, though, the Honorable Mentions:

So let’s go through them in the order they were posted. First up is Crystal:

I never got the Bloodlust.

Some of my favorite first lines are the ones that plant the kernel of a question in a reader’s head. Here, there’s the question raised of “What is the Bloodlust?” but also some implied tension. Whoever this character is, I’m betting s/he either will get the Bloodlust soon or is one of the very few who never got this mysterious Bloodlust, which makes her an outcast, and there’s conflict in that. So we raise a juicy question and also imply that something is going to be fraught about this Bloodlust situation.

Here’s Silvia:

When Misha started seeing holes in people, she told her mother.

I’m not sure I’m crazy about this as a first line, because it’s telling (I’d rather see this instance in scene) and because of the use of the dry, more old-fashioned word “mother,” but the shock value of it can’t be denied, as you can see from the comments. The image certainly is arresting, and it starts with punch. You don’t want to make these kinds of “stunt” first lines a habit, but this one works because I want to read more.

Here’s Lyla:

On the night that Gabriel Durante harvested his one hundredth soul, he bought himself a pack of cigarettes and a drink.

This line cracks me up in a bit of a dark way. There’s a lot going on — this is our longest chosen line — but it’s very specific. There’s clearly something important about the one hundredth soul. There’s a reward for Gabriel here, or a release, but it’s a self-destructive one, hence the dark appeal. I immediately want to know what the one hundredth soul means and what’s waiting for Gabriel after…and that’s the perfect introduction to a book that, I assume, is going to be about just that. This feels like just the right first line for what I can imagine this story will be about. If the story is not about what happens after the one hundredth soul, this writer isn’t setting expectations correctly!

Here’s Stephanie:

People used to smile at me a lot more than they do now.

There’s some good first person pain in this line, which speaks to good voice. And not only do I want to know what happened to make them stop smiling as much, I want to know what it was like before and what it’s like now. Lots of good questions in this line. (Are we seeing a common theme?)

Here’s Amy:

Everything Sophie drew came to life.

This, just like the hole-people line, caught my eye because it’s a unique premise. Again, though, it does suffer from a bit of the telling. It’s a rather dry way of expressing your premise…showing this magic in action would be a much more active choice. You can, of course, use telling to reinforce key ideas occasionally (see good telling vs. bad telling) but I wouldn’t recommend as the first line. Still, I would keep reading this.

Here’s Kayla:

Siven smiles at me as she tightens her fingers around my neck.

This is a great example of starting in medias res (“in the middle of things” in Greek). We jump right into the action. There’s also the great tension of the smile as it clashes against the violent act of the fingers around the neck. This first line has lots of punch (bad pun fully intended)!

Here’s Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Here’s Kait:

I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.

This is another one of those telling lines, but there is a haunting tone to it that hints at good voice down the road. The question is so big and so ache-inducing that it begs the reader to keep going. An emotional connection in a first line is important.

Here’s Ashley:

“What do you want your name to be this time?”

Normally I tell writers to not start their novels with unattributed lines of dialogue. It’s too disorienting right off the bat. This line is a good one, though! It sparks a lot, a lot of questions! If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s something electric like this, and not, say, “Did you finish your cereal?” or whatever.

Finally, for the Honorable Mentions, Miles:

Camilla Bradford counted to ten, then walked out into the street.

There’s tension involved in counting to ten — she’s either doing it in anticipation of something or in anger, as a way to quiet her reaction. By setting up the suspense in this one line, Miles makes us want to keep reading. That’s good, because this project is apparently a YA thriller!

And now, The Winners:

Here’s the unveiling of our first one, Kathryn:

Bea had broken at least six of the Ten Commandments.

The voice here is great! Plus, I want to know more about this character. There’s tension in the breaking of the Commandments…clearly the Commandments matter to the character, because she references them, but not enough to keep from breaking them. This line is tongue-in-cheek and voice-y, also. Overall, just very appealing. The obvious question is, of course: Which Commandments, and how?

And here’s our second winner, Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Kathryn and Kalen both get a critique of their first 250 words (email me, winners, at mary at kidlit dot com with the subject line: First Line Critique). Thanks for playing along, everyone!

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Last week, when I posted about first lines, you all started doing something wonderful: you posted your own and asked for feedback from other readers. You didn’t just do it here…people were critiquing opening lines on my Facebook page, too!

So before we move on to successful first lines from the published shelves, I thought I’d give you all an opportunity to critique and get critiqued by other writers based on your first line. Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Read and comment on three (3) first lines in the comments (this obviously doesn’t apply to the first handful of people to leave theirs).
  2. Post your own first line and tell us if it’s a picture book, MG, YA, whatever.
  3. When you’re responding to the first lines of others, make sure they know that you’re talking to them. I usually put their name and some dashes. Unfortunately, these comments aren’t threaded to do replies, so it will be a bit of a mess.
  4. Check back and scroll through comments to see if anyone has commented on your work.
  5. I will pop in occasionally and pick out a few to critique. The first line with the most comments about it will get a first page (250 word) critique from me!

I love it when my readers tell me what they need, when they just jump in and start a conversation.

ETA: I will be by the site a few times today to approve comments. If you haven’t commented before, your comment will be held for moderation. I’ll release them when I can. But don’t worry — your comment was received, it’s just waiting on me. No need to comment again.

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This submission comes from Mike Hays and is the final beginning workshop for this round. This workshop will be a bit more nitpicky, and so I will make bolded comments within the paragraphs as well. Enjoy!

Ellis opened the front door to the Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community. He could kick himself for not seeing this before. The “it” here is vague, especially for an opening. Doesn’t ground the reader. So, this is how Alicia Swanson beat him again and again in sales contests. Still unclear…does he see her or what? What does he see? It was a good thing he called her house to ask about that algebra assignment. Her mom told him she was out selling tickets in the northwest part of town. Sentence ends with “of town.” After searching the few existing housing additions in that part of town, Town the only place left was an old retirement community which sat isolated near a cornfield on the edge of town. “of town.” The sheer size of the Wonderland Gardens complex led one to believe there were many residents. This is a prime example of dry voice. “Sheer size,” “complex,” “led one” and “residents” aren’t words that a 13-14 year-old kid would use. This reads more like a business memo. Many elderly residents who could fall prey to her It’s been a while since we mentioned Alicia, reintroduce her name. syrupy sweetness sales pitch and buy her tickets to the upcoming Plainfield Youth Summer Theater’s production of Alice in Wonderland, The Musical.

I’m missing some of the motivation. Are both Ellis and Alicia in the production? How are they connected? What do they get if they sell the most tickets? Etc. Build up the stakes. Dry voice here makes for a dense first paragraph.

Of course she would win most ticket sales, Italicize verbatim thoughts… Ellis thought as he stepped across the threshold. She always won, especially against him. Every lead in every show, every spelling bee, math contest, art contest, science fair, etc., etc., etc. (or at least that is how it felt). Even after leading the 8th grade football team to the city championship as quarterback last fall, he was still mercilessly harassed for getting beat out by Alicia for the 7th grade QB position the year before.

There is a lot of telling as he talks about his feelings here. Also, a co-ed football team? My school didn’t have a football program, so maybe I’m missing something. The last sentence is overlong. Try reading it aloud.

He dreamed of being able to seek revenge for the thousand ills of Alicia he had endured “The thousand ills of Alicia he had endured” is clunky…a convoluted way of saying something simple, and this is not the voice of a 13 y.o. boy, even one who is steeped in Poe. like in his favorite Edgar Allen Poe story, THE CASK OF THE AMOTILLADO. The title of the short story, which should be in quotes instead of caps, is “The Cask of Amontillado,” with a missing “n” in there and without the second “the.” Maybe not sealing her in an underground vault to die, but…

“Oh, Mr. McGregor!” An ancient, but bubbly voice came from the shadows inside the lobby. “Another visitor!”

Actually introduce the speaking character, especially for their first dialogue. It’s always a stronger image when characters speak, not their disembodied voices. We do get some of Ellis’ character her, maybe even a spark of a sense of humor, which is good.

The door closed behind Ellis. He took a few measured steps toward the voice as his eyes adjusted from the bright sunshine to the shadowy darkness of the lobby. This is play-by-play narration, we don’t need all of these details, and they’re crammed into a sentence that could otherwise be cleaner. The smell of old flooded Flooded his senses. The flood Flood of memories from his experiences visiting his grandfather reminded him of how he disliked these places, places where they send great old people to get older and wither away, like his grandpa did.

Try to rephrase this last sentence without having to say both “grandfather” and “grandpa.” The implication that his grandpa went to an old age home is clear…if an old age home reminds him of his grandpa, that’s the obvious inference. There’s some over-explaining going on here.

A shiver ran up his spine Physical cliché as he walked into the lobby. He saw the origin of the voice Convoluted way of saying something simple, “origin” is also dry voice, a frail elderly woman. She sat behind an oak table in a red velvet arm chair and next to her, in a matching chair, was an equally old tall man. On the table sat an old fashioned black rotary dial telephone and a gold sign that read, “Welcome to The Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community, Angus and Matilda McGregor, Hosts”

A vivid bit of description here, but the syntax could be smoothed out for all the writing so far. Read the work aloud. I don’t have a finger on Ellis’ voice, and don’t really know much about him as a character, nor why he cares about this ticket sales contest (other than to beat Alice). I’m finding that I’m not connecting as much as I need to be in order to hook into a beginning.

“Young, sir.” Comma before a “said” tag…a period goes after dialogue only if you’re moving on to an action tag. said the old man. They stood up and walked around the table to meet Ellis. They wore matching khaki slacks and red flannel shirts.

Ellis is a bit of an impartial observer. All of this is told in a very measured way. There’s no reaction, no Ellis spin on any of what he’s describing. He’s acting like a camera, just recording the scene. That is one of the reasons why we aren’t bonding with him as a character…there’s no personalized spin on what he’s telling us about. Reactions? Thoughts? Etc.

“Welcome to Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community,” This one would be a period, then. Why do we need dialogue welcoming him if there was already a sign? Redundant. The man swung his long arm in a arc Before vowel-beginning words, h-beginning words, and acronyms, you use “an” instead of “a” motion “Motion” here is redundant… “swung his arm in an arc” implies “motion.” As Strunk and White say: “Omit needless words.”, his fingers at the furthest point in connected space from his lanky body. Don’t know if you need to describe the layout in this much detail, we all know that fingers are at the end of an arm…The entire lobby seemed to fall under the sweep of his arm.

Lots of play-by-play narration still going on, not a lot of emotional involvement. Some dry voice and basic writing issues here. I’d urge the writer here to work on grammar and syntax and giving us more of Ellis as a character. Then he can tackle voice.

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The penultimate workshop for this series comes from Darcy.

“So? Have you thought about it long enough yet?” The question startled me so much I dropped my spoon full of granola into my bowl. Soy milk splashed up onto my chin and the front of my sweater, and Pepper barked from where she was sitting under my chair. Peter had a habit of slipping into a room without anyone noticing. He was stealthy like that. I made a face Poppy would have called “The Evil Eye” and threw it at him.

This is a classic jarring beginning that I see a lot. Unattributed dialogue to begin is always dicey, since we don’t know the characters. And we could literally be anywhere, talking to anyone, about anything. It does nothing to ground the reader. We learn nothing about the character from her reaction, either, as she is just startled. We get the soy milk detail and the little puppy with the preppy name. We also get some attitude, but we don’t get the main character and Peter’s relationship, which is a weakness for the rest of the scene. Also, the Poppy/Pepper names are too close for me. For a second, I thought, “Wait, how does she know what the dog is thinking?” There’s so much and it’s so disorienting that I don’t even have enough bandwidth left over to focus on what the “it” in the first sentence is, which the writer is trying to set up as the source of tension.

“Woah. What’s with the Evil Eye? This is your Primary Present we’re talking about,” said Peter.

Perhaps I was a bit hasty with the Evil Eye look. I quickly tried to make it up to him.

She knows what he’s asking about, so I don’t get why she gives him the Evil Eye and then recants. The “Primary Present” line, as a result, seems like it’s for the reader’s benefit…to introduce the idea to the reader instead of aim for organic dialogue. Please also notice how old you think this character is…

“Sorry, Peter,” I said. I got up from my seat and retrieved my super special bought-it-with-my-own-money chocolate granola from the pantry. “Would you like some granola for breakfast?” I asked sweetly.

Peter laughed. “That,” he said, pointing to my Delightfully Chocolate-y granola, “is not breakfast. This is breakfast.” He grabbed a package of whole wheat bagels from the fridge and held them high like he had just caught a 30-pound salmon and was showing it off. I shrugged. He had a point. If I ran out of my chocolate granola I would probably take a whole wheat bagel instead.

We get no information about what their relationship is. As I’m reading this, with an eye trained by tens of thousands of kidlit novel beginnings, I’m thinking she’s a 14/15 y.o. snotty (and a bit manipulative) teen and he’s her obnoxious older brother, who’s your typical carbo-loading dude. Plus, why does the writer spend so much time gloating over the granola if the character would just as soon ditch it for a bagel? It told me something about the character, at least, until she was like, “But it doesn’t matter because I can do a bagel, too.” What’s the point of establishing it and then devaluing it right away? Now it is a meaningless detail.

Having settled the breakfast food question I returned to my granola while Peter poured himself a cup of coffee. “You still haven’t answered my question, Beatrix” he pointed out.

Rats. I had been hoping the Great Granola vs. Bagel debate would distract him. The fact was I had not thought long enough about my Primary Present yet. I wasn’t any closer to a decision that day than I was a month earlier and I had to come up with something quick. My deadline was just around the corner.

I’m confused as to what this Primary Present issue is. Is it just a present? Seems that way. (You never know with all the dystopian plots going around…it could be something more serious.) But, for now, I really don’t get what the big deal is. Someone is trying to do something nice for Beatrix…so why is she acting so weird and cagey about it? Those stakes are extremely low. Even saying something like “The Great Granola vs. Bagel debate,” an attempt at high stakes language, doesn’t raise stakes because we saw the debate…and it wasn’t that big a deal. Giving us a sense of why she’s avoiding it, and giving her a specific deadline (not the vague “just around the corner”) would give the writer a stronger position but I’m still not sure the premise is tense enough. Also, do a comma between “Beatrix” and the end quote in the first paragraph.

Each year for My Birthday/Christmas Peter always bought me a lot of nice presents: books, art supplies, music CD’s. He would buy them all year round and then give them to me on December 25th. That was the day we celebrated my birthday and Christmas too, of course. Those small things were all my Secondary Presents. Then there was my Primary Present. The Primary Present was always something super special. I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped. Every year I tried to stump Peter and see if I could come up with something that he couldn’t pull off, but he always came through.

Now it seems like Peter is a parent figure? Still very unclear, because he acts like a macho teen boy. The presents he’s bought are vague and missed opportunities to provide character details. I’d also quibble with “music CDs”: first, you don’t need the apostrophe, second, it’s redundant, just say “CDs,” third, CDs aren’t as popular/relevant these days. Again, it sounds like what Peter does is really nice, so I have no idea why she’s avoiding the issue. It’s like me refusing a spa treatment. Really?

Last year he took me and my best friend Poppy to New York City for the day and we had high tea at Bergdorf Goodman and tried on shoes we could never possibly buy. Then we went on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. That one was extra special because it was my tenth birthday. This year, my eleventh birthday, doesn’t seem so special on the calendar, and I’d already tried everything I could think of up to this birthday to try as a Primary Present.

Aside from two mentions now, we haven’t really seen Poppy, so is she really necessary to cram in there right now or can she be introduced with more context later? The biggest shocker, to me, was the character’s age. Her voice right now is a bit like GOSSIP GIRL meets Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City. She’s jaded, really self-aware (a more adult trait), manipulative around men, and loves a good pair of Manolos. And I’m supposed to buy that she’s ten? Sure, maybe in the world of Toddlers and Tiaras but I read too much middle grade to really have this voice for this age ring true. And know that readers for a 10 y.o. character will be younger (since kids always read up), so an 8 y.o. from the general reading pool wouldn’t really bond with this character, I don’t think.

So here we have some voice issues, some stakes issues, some characterization issues, and some context issues. Overall, I would take another run at this beginning with clarity in mind, and, depending on the plot, age the character up to 15 or 16. It would be much easier to write to your voice instead of trying to change your voice to fit the character…here, it’s clearly a much more adult voice than the writer is aware of, I think. This is not a glowing workshop, I’m afraid, but there’s a lot to take away here, and I applaud the writer for volunteering!

ETA: Deleted the present could/couldn’t be wrapped note because I missed it! Sorry all, and thanks for your eagle eyes!

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This workshop piece comes from Michele Tennant. Enjoy!

Dylan pushed off the sidewalk with his black Converse high-tops. Beneath him the wheels on his skateboard whirred. Tiny bumps on the concrete beneath sent vibrations up his legs. The only voice in his head was his own.

The Converse shoe is a “hi-top” (and they often call them Chucks…as a former punk kid/skate rat, I try to be aware of these things). The second sentence reads awkwardly. There’s a simpler way to say it, and the syntax is off. Not sure why you need to say that “The only voice in his head was his own.” I should hope so…whose else is in there? Doesn’t need explaining.

“Okay, folks you’re in for a treat,” Dylan mumbled under his breath. He mimicked the roar of a crowed stadium. “thirteen year old Dylan Davis will now be attempting the laser flip. Let’s hope he doesn’t scrape any freckles off on the pavement.”

Capitalized “Thirteen” here. When I talk about mimetic writing, I want you to be aware of what the character is doing. If he’s skating, he’s working out. The freckles/pavement line is too long for someone out of breath…

Another push and Dylan picked up speed. The crisp morning air stung his eyes making them water. Dylan breathed in the smell of damp pavement and lilac blossoms and saw a flash of red across the street. Katie Jordan had stepped off the curb. She was fresh and clean and dressed for work.

I’d put a comma between “eyes” and “water.” Good smell detail, though. We usually ignore that sense. “She was fresh and clean and dressed for work” is not something I’d imagine a 13 y.o. skate kid saying about a woman. The voice is too adult and too female. I would’ve also loved more context for who Katie is…a teacher? A neighbor? Mrs. Robinson?

She smiled and waved, and a breeze blew her flowing red skirt up just high enough for Dylan to get a glimpse of the black lace on her slip beneath. He waved back. Still following her with his eyes, he pushed off the ground again. One of the wheels struck a pebble. The board wobbled precariously causing Dylan to flail his arms as he steadied himself.

Would a 13 y.o. boy know what a slip is? This lacy peek is a bit sexy in this context, and we still don’t know who Katie is, so I don’t quite understand it yet. That description is not in voice, again, and the first sentence is overlong. I’d also use “underneath” here. We’ve got a bit of play-by-play narration going on here…you’re tracking what’s happening very closely, but I’m not sure we need all these details described so thoroughly. “Causing” is a very dry voice word, esp. for a 13 y.o. boy narrator. “Steadied” too.

He glanced back, hoping Katie hadn’t seen. Thankfully, she had bent to pick up the Sunday newspaper.

Up the street Dylan heard an engine rev.

Come on focus, he told himself. A little faster now . . . What did Jason say? Push off, jump, flip and land. Landing, that’s the part I’m worried about.

Is he just skating for the sake of skating or is there something coming up that he’s practicing for? A competition? The Impress The Older Lady Olympics? You could frame what he’s doing and why to give us more stakes for this practice session. “Thankfully” not in voice here. Overall, I’m really not getting a 13 y.o. boy sense from the prose. Try reading it aloud. Really get into your boy’s character.

A black SUV sped past Dylan. He turned to see it bump up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. There stood Katie, hand in her open mailbox, frozen, her eyes wide.

We don’t really get the danger in this description. Is it weaving? Does it narrowly miss him? One moment it “sped,” the next moment it is on a rampage. You could build up this moment more so that it’s not a jarring surprise to the reader, who wasn’t expecting this. It’s an issue of tone.

The newspaper dropped from Katie’s fingertips. Dylan opened his mouth to warn her, as he did the skateboard stopped abruptly. A jolt shuddered through Dylan’s body. He was propelled forward like a test dummy. The world flew past; Katie’s frightened face, the SUV, houses, trees, picket fence, sidewalk, sky.

The second sentence is clunky and an awkward transition. The test dummy image is a bit of a cliché. Like the snatches of images…they’re mimetic of what’s going on.

Dylan found himself on his back in the damp concrete culvert. All he could hear was the whoosh, whoosh, whooshing of the blood rushing through his veins. His body felt disconnected, numb and cold and a salty, metallic taste filled his mouth. He spit a mixture of blood and saliva onto the pavement beside him.

“Found himself” is a rather mild way of putting it. I’d switch out something with more impact. (Get it? Because he just hit the ground?) These sentences are a bit dry for something so intense. The syntax of “numb and cold and a salty” is off to me. Also, there has been no interiority in terms of his thoughts. Have your character react to what’s going on…a lot has just happened…where’s his head in all this?!

Taking a deep breath, Dylan struggled to lift his right arm. It wouldn’t budge. With his left elbow he managed to army crawled up the muddy, moss covered concrete to the sidewalk. There on the blacktop lay Katie’s mangled body. Her arms and legs stuck out at odd angles and a puddle that matched her skirt was slowly spreading around her. A dull hum filled his ears. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button for the whole planet.

Could use more thoughts. Like the last image very much. If we knew more about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Katie, we would care a lot more when she gets whalloped. It’s all about context. This might be a bit graphic, depending on the rest of the story, for MG. Also, good job starting right off with some action!

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Today’s workshop comes from S.E. Sinkhorn. Let’s just dive right in!

Two hours before I learned my father had been found dead by the side of the lake, I sat on my favorite park bench and sketched an eye. A beak. A crest. The pages of my book were bronze in the autumn sunlight.

Like the bronze image. The first sentence packs a punch but is perhaps too long to really focus us. The writer throws a lot of information into that one and I don’t know where to really look. Good tension, though, but could it be more specific? “Found dead” is vague. Murdered? Found dead by his own hand?

No indication the hopeful lantern I’d kept burning inside me for four years had gone out. Only feathers attached to skin fused to muscle stitched to bone. My pencil didn’t even twitch as my entire world shifted. I just couldn’t feel it yet.

“Hopeful lantern” sounds very lovely, but is vague. Does this refer to the dad? Or another hopeful lantern about something else? Be more specific, as it’s too ethereal now.  I like the idea of something happening that’s huge, but the character not knowing it yet. This does tell us, though, that she’s relating this story from some future vantage point and I wonder how far back she’s looking…I’m wondering why birds are so important.

So I continued as I always did, enjoying my small patch of life between the lifeless brown buildings, and waited for my brother to meet me. The L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop. For a moment, I could pretend to be somewhere else. Someone else.

Not sure about “the L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop,” there’s something off to me about it. Maybe something like “a cloud of soot rose from a passing L-train” or something. Air being a backdrop stopped me. I was probably also thinking of the L train subway that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, which doesn’t emit soot. :) Maybe it’s also because I don’t quite know the time setting. The fashion details below hint at like turn of the 20th century, but “lifeless brown buildings” seems too reminiscent of mid-20th century urban architecture. The idea of a city being lifeless is also a bit modern in tone.

The moment didn’t last long.

Heavy footfalls clacked their way up the path toward me, startling the cardinals I’d been drawing into a flurry of red wings. A pair of expensive leather boots filled their place in my field of vision. I sighed and snapped my sketchbook closed. My gaze followed the boots up to find their owner clad in the height of Parisian fashion, down to her ebony-colored walking gown and gloves trimmed with pearl buttons. An emerald and gold choker winked at me from her pale neck, clashing horribly with the black.

This description really doesn’t work for me. It gives the character’s eyeballs a video camera feel. They are zooming and panning in on parts, not the whole. That’s a very cinematic description but I’d rather see the whole picture than just boots, then ankles, then gown, etc. It’s fragmented and uses a visual technique that doesn’t carry across well on page as opposed to screen. I want to see Mirabelle as much more whole when we first meet her. We also get no interiority. I can tell the two girls don’t like one another, but a thought or a reaction to this girl showing up could add another layer. I’m also not crazy about footfalls clacking. It’s a sound, and the writer is giving it almost a physical presence which it just doesn’t have.

“Hello, Mirabelle,” I said.

Her smile curved like a scythe as she brushed a cinnamon curl behind her ear. A set of parasols twitched behind her, attached to the day’s pair of sycophantic companions.

“Clara, darling. Playing with your friends again?” Mirabelle said. I imagined her circling me like a pack dog.

The antagonism between Mirabelle and Clara is thick here, but overwritten. We get the scythe image, then circling, then dog. The writer is working a little too hard to make sure we GET IT. No need to be overwrought. The line about “sycophantic companions” is great but it also sounds really modern-sarcasm to me. Like, I’d imagine Daria saying something like that (yeah, that’s right, I just pulled “Daria” out of my hat), so it adds to my confusion about time period and period voice.

“I was enjoying the company of creatures I didn’t have to bully or buy, yes,” I said.

One of the other girls gasped in exaggerated offense, but Mirabelle scarcely batted an eye. “Oh, my dear, you must do better than that. Sharpen your tongue for my father’s gala this evening, for I expect far wittier repertoire.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and didn’t respond.

I’m getting much more authentic period voice in the dialogue. It’s still catty, sure, but the syntax is more stylized than the prose/descriptions. Like the bully/buy line.

Mirabelle put her hand to her chest and painted her face with a near-convincing expression of concern. “But you must have received an invitation! All of Chicago’s finest will be there. Surely it’s been long enough since your father walked out that the scandal has died down.”

A slow eruption of nervous laughter swelled behind her. There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation. Familiar heat began to creep up my neck.

“There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation” is great period voice, and it’s also great interiority. The dialogue is a bit for the reader’s benefit (a way to introduce the father detail) and it reminds us of the opening, but I might let it stay. (My objection would be that characters who know one another this well don’t usually repeat such basic biographical details in conversation…it’s not organic.)

“I’ve no interest in attending your father’s garish parties. If you’re quite finished, I’m meeting my brother at four o’clock, and I’ll take your leave.” I stood and walked past the she-wolf and her lapdogs.

When I was a few steps away, she called, “Perhaps your mother might like to attend. She could finally admit her infidelity and beg a proposal from whoever sired your sister. It would be the highlight of the evening.”

Working too hard again on the “she-wolf and her lapdogs” line. Also, this clashes with the similar-yet-different “pack dog” image earlier. Love the last diss! It’s so catty it reminds me of THE LUXE series.

Overall, some strong writing, but the first two paragraphs don’t match the rest. There’s some tension there, but I don’t know if it’s specific enough or, yet, how it relates. I hope she finds out about the dead body soon. The period was also confusing. The character’s sarcasm and observations struck me as very modern, but the style of dress and some of the dialogue was obviously period. For historical, if this is indeed historical, this is a crucial voice issue to nail.

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The first beginning workshop comes from O’Dell Hutchinson for a WIP called “The Weeping.” Without further ado, here is my feedback on O’Dell’s beginning!

It was hot. The acrid smell of smoke filled her lungs, singeing them with every breath. Her head was spinning. She could hear people screaming. A man with a deep, booming, voice was yelling, telling everyone to stay calm and move toward the exit.

“It was hot” could be a first line to anything. A breezy summer beach read. A Southern gothic. It’s a fire, of course it’s hot. I’m looking for a first line with a little more bang here. There’s also a passive voice issue.

“Phillip?” she choked out.

“Phillip!” she screamed again.

The dialogue tags are overwritten here. We don’t know who Phillip is, also. Maybe some context.

Had he managed to get out? Was he searching for her? When the smoke started billowing on to the stage, everyone scattered, knocking her to the ground. It barely took any time at all for the smoke to take over, and the screaming to start. She pulled herself up and walked to what she thought was stage left. There was an exit backstage. If she could just get to the exit.

The writer does a great job of starting in action. We also get some interiority about Phillip here, which is good. But I’m missing a lot of context, ie: who is Phillip, how did the fire start, etc.

She pulled the skirt of her costume over her nose to help block the smoke, but it wasn’t working. The air around her swirled in misty curtains of black and grey. She couldn’t see where she was going. Her eyes stung and it took everything she had to keep them open. She tripped over something. Was it a set piece? A body? She couldn’t tell; the smoke was too thick.

Now we lose the interiority. What if it was a body? What thoughts would cross her mind? Does she think about dying? What does it feel like to not be able to breathe? There’s action and a very visceral setting but I’m not quite feeling what I would imagine it feels like to be in a hot, hot fire yet.

She inched her way toward what she thought would be the exit. She closed her eyes and followed the screams of the terrified people scrambling to get out of the theatre. They seemed to be coming from everywhere.

Multiple mentions of screaming already, getting redundant. Also, screaming people are usually terrified, so there some overstating of the obvious.

There was a sudden burst of heat in front of her. Unbearable heat. She took a step back, away from the flames that were closing in on her. She was afraid of falling off the stage and into the orchestra pit, so she got down on her hands and knees and crawled. She pulled herself forward with one hand, the other clutching her dress to her nose.

Not getting a true burst. The narrative voice is even-handed and calm and the sentences are long…not exactly what you’d expect during a scene that describes someone fleeing for their life. Check out the post on mimetic writing

The screams had faded and now seemed to be coming from outside. They were mixed with the sound of sirens. She felt a touch of relief. The firemen were here. They would put out the fire. They would save her.

Again, the interiority and almost nonchalance of the narrative voice don’t add up to a lot of tension for me. If I was about to be rescued from an inferno, I wouldn’t exactly feel just “a touch of relief.” By now, also, I invite you to note that we haven’t learned a single thing about this character other than she does theatre and she’s currently in a fire. There have been no characterizing details that reveal her to us as a person.

Something cracked and was followed by a loud crashing sound. The stage shook beneath her as whatever it was hit the floor. She started to panic again. The building was coming down. She quickly crawled forward, feeling her way around the stage, doing her best to maneuver around set pieces and fallen props.

Throughout the piece, we also have some play-by-play narration that is contributing to the passive voice. We don’t need every single movement described here.

The stage lights above her started to pop, sparkling through the smoke as they briefly lit up before shattering. It was as if she were being photographed by a swarm of photographers. Paparrazi documenting the every move of an eighteen-year-old girl as she fought for her life. She felt a sharp pain shoot up through her hand as she crawled over shards of glass from the broken bulbs.

An interesting image that fits in well with the performer part of the story so far.

There was another crack, this time directly above her. She looked up in time to see a beam, lit with flames, falling toward her. She tried to roll out of the way, but it caught her ankle, trapping her as it ignited her petticoat. She let out one more cry for help as the flames danced up her legs. She tried to move, but the beam held fast. She was going to die. The heat enveloped her and she did the only thing she could do. She wept.

The thoughts, memories, and prayers going through her head at this point would be extremely telling in terms of character. Not giving us interiority here is a huge missed opportunity.

Overall, there are some definite strengths: starts with action, a visceral scene with lots of tension. But there is also room for growth: we need a lot more about the character, we need interiority, we need some more action in the writing voice itself, and less static description. It’s not that the writer isn’t describing action–there’s a lot of stuff going on–but it’s the style of the description that’s passive and a bit flat.

I hope that seeing how I think about this beginning as I read it will help you look at your own beginnings and your own writing craft. I look forward to posting more beginnings this week and next!

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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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I have been meaning to tackle MFA programs for longer than I’ve had the blog. Tons of writers have asked me: is it worth it to get an MFA? Does that catch your eye in a query? Is the actual curriculum going to take my writing to the next level?

As many of you know, I recently completed my MFA. Before I can speak about the MFA experience in general, I have to speak about my MFA experience, which was not altogether positive. I mean no disrespect to the hard-working directors, professors, advisers, and students at the University of San Francisco. However, I want to be truthful. And the truth is, I often felt like a pariah in my program on two counts: as a children’s writer and as a publishing industry insider.

First, there were a lot of people there (all writing serious adult fiction) who didn’t get children’s books. My first workshop started with someone saying: “Well, I never expected profundity from a children’s manuscript.” (There were a few genre writers in the program who, I think, got a bit of the same snobby treatment because they weren’t writing literary fiction.) That’s fine, though. There’s a well-known bias against kidlit in adult literary circles and I don’t waste my time defending my profession to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Second, though, and more problematic, is that I worked in publishing and concerned myself with ideas of market and audience and sales hooks and all that unsavory business. I can’t help it. As an agent, saleability and hook is just how I think. People were very quick to brand me a corporate sellout. More on that later.

While I did have trouble fitting in, for the above reasons, I can say that I found workshop useful and that I met one of my dear mentors through the program. I also either started or finished several manuscripts over the course of the two-year MFA, and improved with each one. How much of this was the program and how much was it my growing experience in agenting and publishing? Hard to say. How much of it was the MFA and how much of it was my own writing habits? Also hard to say.

One of my issues with MFA programs is that it seems like a lot of students go there and buy the scaffolding to allow themselves to finish a manuscript. I’m the opposite, and ridiculously self-driven. I’d written something like four manuscripts and gotten an agent before entering the program, so I couldn’t relate to the majority of students who seemed to be there to finish a book for the first time in their lives. A lot of people work well under pressure or deadline, and most of my peers seemed to be paying for the experience of a structured, two-year plan to finish. If you’re having problems executing a book, this might actually be the perfect fit for you: a completed manuscript is the “thesis” of most MFA programs, it’s a graduation requirement.

Another issue is that the professors and directors treat the MFA as an artistic cocoon. Writers are there to write and think about art and craft (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but the program doesn’t teach the industry or the business…you know, all the stuff that, ideally, happens after you finish your magnum opus. I think it’s perfectly fair to focus on the gestation of the manuscript during the MFA, but the truth is, the publishing industry exists, and it’s a business. And no matter how much (the majority of) the students rant and rave against traditional publication, I know most of them are interested in actually getting their work published, paid for, and read widely.

Not only is industry talk relegated to one dreary afternoon — the “Life After the MFA” workshop — but it’s actually frowned upon in the classroom and socially. I asked one of my advisers, point blank: “How many of our alums actually get their books published?” She frowned and said: “Not many.” Nobody is going to pay back their student loans with their contributor’s copies from the Small Time Literary Review (the only payment you get from most journals and magazines), but a lot of MFA students act as if this is the right and noble thing to do. The tortured/starving/pissed-off artisté cliche is alive and well. Lots of MFA alums have told me that the exact same vibe exists across the country.

My beef with MFA programs isn’t really what happens during them — all that focus on craft and writing is a beautiful thing — but what happens after. There’s precious little information about publishing to guide your next steps, and not a lot of empathy for those dreaming of publication with a big house. A lot of students in my program actually come back and audit classes after graduation to feel the community of the MFA again, since it’s the first time they’ve had a critique group or felt like a real writer. The same students who need a MFA program to finish a book are also relying on their MFA program to be their only workshop opportunity, their legitimacy. And that’s an expensive way to learn how to write a manuscript. Last I checked, anyone can form a critique group, it’s just a matter of initiative and a little elbow grease to find the right people. I was in a critique group before and after my MFA, so the idea of workshop wasn’t totally revolutionary to me, either.

But if MFA programs had to start tallying up their publication stats — much like undergraduate universities advertise their job placement percentages for recent grads — a lot of them would be in trouble. Because for most programs, the stats aren’t good. The truth is, an MFA does not guarantee publication, because nobody and nothing in life (except worldwide celebrity) can guarantee a book deal. So MFA faculty and directors have taken the focus entirely off publication and put it on the writing journey. That way, the MFA process itself is fulfilling because there’s not quantifiable end goal. There’s no pressure. I totally get where the MFA programs are coming from with this. But I still think it’s detrimental to the writers, who now have two years of fuzzy writerly feelings and no idea what to do next.

To tell you the whole, honest truth: seeing that you have an MFA in a query letter doesn’t really impress me, unless you went to a really high-profile school. I’ve read the writing coming out of my MFA program and some of the work from second year students wasn’t much better than what I see from rank beginners in my slush. I’m not trying to be mean, at all. But I judge writing professionally, every day, and most of the work I saw wouldn’t pass muster.

I do wonder if I would’ve had the same experience if I’d gone to a program specifically targeted to children’s writers. If I could go back in time, I’d probably apply to Vermont (website). There are other programs that have MFA programs for children’s writers. Hamline (website), Simmons (website) and the New School (website) come to mind. Though, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d get an MFA if I had it to do all over. I’m not sure the whole experience — the nitty gritty writing mixed with the high-brow attitude — is a fit for me, as a person.

At the end of the day, I think I’ve learned so much more about writing by simply working in the industry than I ever did in the classroom. I also learned a whole lot by reading, and not just the same old short stories that seem to be part of every writing curriculum. I mean reading in my chosen genre, thousands and thousands of books above and beyond what I was assigned, because that’s just what I do. I know my approach (work in publishing, become an agent, read thousands of books) isn’t realistic for everyone, but since I started in publishing at the same time that I started my MFA, I can’t tell which influence is really responsible for what I know now. I am a better writer than I was two years ago (in all my spare time — ha!), but I think that came from a wide mix of experiences, not the least of which is putting my butt in the seat and actually, you know, writing.

If I was running my own program — and several agents and I have discussed this fantasy because we get frustrated with the output from today’s MFA programs — I’d run a mix of MFA and MBA, much like suggested in this cheeky little article that I found this morning.

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