What Makes Relatable Characters?

A New Yorker article that made the rounds a while back questioned the merit of relatable characters. “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” by Rebecca Mead is a great think piece. It goes into a brief history of the word “relatable,” takes some pot shots at Ira Glass, and completely denounces the concept of relatability as the act of readers or viewers demanding “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, The New Yorker. You look a little tense. Take a seat, loosen your tie. Would you like a drink? You seem a little … peaked.

relatable characters, relatability
Young readers want relatable characters who validate their own experiences; who hold up a mirror and say, “This weird thing you’re going through? Me, too.”

I Still Believe in Relatable Characters

I’ll be the first to admit that I talk a lot about the concept of relatability as it, ahem, relates to writing fiction, especially for picture book, middle grade, and young adult readers. And no, I did not have an epiphany reading this op-ed piece about how that’s stupid and “hopelessly reductive” to advocate. I still believe that relatability is very important when targeting younger readers, because one has to take their mindset into consideration. Today’s MG and YA readers, especially, thrive on connection and are going through a lot of stuff that they don’t have the facilities or life experience to process yet. Good stuff, and negative stuff. And a lot of the time, they run into problems when they feel alone. They are bullied, they are abused at home, they feel like they have no voice, something secret gets out about them and they feel like they have no control over it, etc. etc. etc. Readers in these age groups want to read to form relationship.

Weird is Relatable

And relatability is a natural extension of wanting to capture a readership that craves connection. Do we make each character an Everyman meant to emulate and capture the widest possible audience by having the most generic (more relatable?) traits possible? No, nobody said that. I would argue that even the more quirky or odd or unsympathetic characters in fiction are relatable by virtue of how weird they are. Because we all have, at one point or another, felt like a profound freak. And even if they’re not the same kind of profound freak, we find solace in their freakishness.

One of my favorite “weird” characters is Beatrice from Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye In Robot. I have a lot in common with Beatrice and a lot absolutely not in common with her. But something about her is so damn relatable that I can’t stand it. Why? I believe it’s because the character is so specific. She feels real. A lot of detail went into her creation. She is the very opposite of the wide net Everygirl trying to be all things to all people. And yet she’s one of the most relatable characters I’ve read.

Relatable Characters Aren’t Necessarily Bland

Rebecca Mead says that relatability is a pox because it somehow demands that a work to “be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… (who) remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Again, I disagree. Those works that pander to the audience and try to grasp the loose concept of relatability might fall to this flaw.

But when Natalie Standiford was writing Beatrice, I don’t think she was coming from a place of “I have to construct this girl to appeal to all.” Writing character development, for Standiford, meant creating a quirky and TRUE character. Now, what’s true about Beatrice to you might be very different from what’s true about Beatrice to me. And that’s okay. The fact remains that there’s just so much there to choose from about this rich and complex characterization.

Instead of producing a cookie-cutter character and a one-size-fits-all book to strive for Rebecca Mead’s portrayal of relatability, Natalie Standiford created a work where relatability was a natural byproduct of a lot of tough, honest, and incredibly specific characterization and plotting. Nobody cut any corners, in fact, I bet it was harder to write someone so nuanced.

Young Readers Need Connection

Long story short, I think that PB, MG, and YA readers are precious. And if they’re anything like I was in those age groups, they are searching. They crave connection. If the idea of relatability urges writers on to write even better characters and stories for readers who will very much flourish when relating to the work, I’d say it’s an amazing thing. Let The New Yorker see the glass as half-empty, I see it as half-full of great inspiration and potential for writers.

(Also, and not to ruffle any feathers with my off-the-cuff attempt at humor, I am a damn theatre major and I think that a lot of Shakespeare sucks. It’s a rigorous mental exercise, and a lot of fun to perform, and it revolutionized the English language, and all that is fine and good, but, as a modern woman, I’m happy to leave it at that without putting it on a pedestal. I’ve read the complete works once, when I was young and full of idealism. And you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

Working on character relatability? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

Writing a Children’s Book Series: Laying the Groundwork

I want to make a few key points about writing a children’s book series. Namely, there’s my old yarn about writing your story as having “series potential” instead of REQUIRING a three- or five- or nine-book contract to execute your idea properly.

writing a children's book series, book series
You want there to be subtle potential for a series or sequel. You’ll have a better shot at publication this way.

Series Potential vs Series Required

We’re not in the Harry Potter boom years anymore, nor are we deep in a recession, but the market is still risk-averse. And signing up a debut writer for one unknown book, let alone three unknown books, represents a potential opportunity, sure, but also a big potential loss for the house. Basically, you’re in a much stronger position if you write one amazing manuscript with “series potential” (a few threads left open and the suggestion of future adventures that could be exploited) and then have the publisher asking you for a sequel, than you would be if you were the one needing multiple books to get your story told. (If you’re actively writing a children’s book series, check out my post on the series query letter for more on how to introduce series potential to an agent.)

Writing a Children’s Book Series: Leave Some Threads Open

Now, when you’re writing a children’s book series, how do you leave those threads open in a way that keeps your sequel options open while letting your manuscript seem whole enough to stand alone? Ah, now this is a good question. First, I would recommend that no more than three threads be left open. And they should be subplot threads with maybe one main plot thread, not all main plot threads. Your job is to resolve most of those by the end of Book 1. If you’re ending on a cliff-hanger or you’re leaving the main plot undecided, you’re not paying attention to everything the current market is telling you about sequels.

If, however, you haven’t entirely resolved one character’s problem, and your protagonist is still wondering about a certain element of the subplot, and the ending feels buttoned-up but you’ve hinted at the potential that everything could go to hell in a handbasket at some point in the future, then you’re doing it right. Future threat that may or may not come to pass is compelling enough to use as a launching-off point for a sequel. Present threat that’s not resolved slaps your reader in the face after they’ve spent four hours reading your story with a, “Yeah, you’ll have to buy the next installment and find out.”

Don’t Plant Unnecessary Seeds

Another thing I’ve noticed about writing a children’s book series: in some manuscripts, there are instances where seemingly random details are planted that stick out like a sore thumb. They have little bearing on the story that we’ve been reading so far. What gives? Invariably, the writer admits that they are “seeds being planted for the sequel.” This balances on the razor’s edge between “smart” and “silly.”

Let’s say that you are definitely planning a sequel if only someone would give you one, so you’re sneaking things into the manuscript that will only make sense once you get to execute the second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) parts of the story you’re envisioning. That’s fine. To a point. But if the last third of your book starts to read like the prologue to Book 2, you’re in trouble with the reader. “Why are we spending so much time talking about something that has no precedent in the entire story I’ve just read?” they’ll wonder.

Balance is Always Key

Balance is key to most things, in life and in fiction. When you’re writing a children’s book series, plant some details, leave some threads. But stick to your principles and your duties to the reader. Finish up the story you’ve invited them to read. That is first and foremost. Once you have a really solid resolution, then you can plant a few seeds. If you never get to do that sequel, they will be nonsense at worst, and not many people will notice. But if you’ve gone overboard and every second page hints at something that has no bearing on the present denouement, you’ve overstepped your bounds.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I can help you structure your novel so that there’s subtle potential for a sequel.

Writing for the Reader by Anticipating Reader Wants

Writing for the reader by anticipating what readers want comes up when I’m discussing worldbuilding. For example, imagine a reader brand new to the fantasy world you’re creating. They’ve just dropped out of the sky and landed in the middle of it. They are fully immersed. (A good analogy for opening a book). What are your first few questions going to be? (“Why is the sky purple? Can everyone shoot lightning from their fingertips? Why does only the royal class get to wear clothes?”) A skillful worldbuilder, then, incorporates the answers to these implied questions into their narrative so that the reader doesn’t have to be distracted from the story by the stuff they’re wondering about. They can just know it and move on to what’s happening in front of them. Otherwise, you have a situation where your reader is stuck on the details (“No, but seriously, hold the phone, why is the sky purple?”) and they’re missing the forest of your story for the trees.

writing for the reader, what readers want, what do people want to read
Make the reader comfortable in your story by providing important details right away. That lets your audience relax and surrender to the experience.

Writing For The Reader Means Anticipating Reader Questions

This principle can be blown out to apply to every story. In a job interview, candidates are taught to anticipate the questions and give answers that satisfy that unique company’s requirements. Same principle. If you’re truly writing for the reader, you need to ask yourself: What does your reader want to see? What are you setting them up for? What promises are you making that you need to deliver on? (Check out my post on setting reader expectations for more on this topic.)

An Example

You’re writing a MG about some neighborhood kids who want to prove that the old, crotchety woman in the dilapidated mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac is a witch who’s responsible for the town’s trees dying. We’ve all heard variations on this “A witch lives in that house!” tall tale. The wrong way to go about this sort of story would be to spend the first half of the manuscript discussing the backstory of what she’s done that’s crazy, sneaking around her house at night when she’s asleep, going to the local bookstore to look up books on local legends, having a seance in the woods to talk about the woman, trying to interview her neighbors, having a bake sale to raise money for better flashlights to sneak into the house again, etc. etc. etc. What is missing in all of this? What readers want to know about: THE OLD WOMAN.

Show Big Story Elements Sooner Rather Than Later

The reader will not be invested in the story until we meet this crone in the wrinkly flesh. See her interact with the kids. Try and suss out what about her is so creepy. Make up our own minds. This is a classic case of telling versus showing. But since the woman is such a big part of this story, the longer we go without meeting her, the more the writer fails to address what readers want. The same goes for any big story element. If all your character can do is talk about the fact that school is making him miserable, let’s see a classroom scene. If a girl goes on and on about her crush, get him on stage sooner rather than later. I say all the time that something grows in importance the more it’s mentioned or seen in a story. This is a balance. You’re not writing for the reader if something is mentioned and not put into action. (Unless it’s someone like Oz, the Great and Powerful, whose reputation is built up to ridiculous heights on purpose to make the final reveal all the more shocking.)

Too Much Teasing And The Reader Will Stop Chasing The Carrot

Like the unanswered question about your fantasy world that sticks in your reader’s craw and won’t let them immerse themselves in the rest of the story, failing to address what readers want is a huge missed opportunity. When it comes to crafting your story, especially at the beginning, identify the most important characters, settings, plot events and other elements. Then see if you’re leaving the reader hanging with any of them. A little teasing is good and builds tension. Too much and the reader will want to stop chasing the dangling carrot. Is there any point where they’re left sitting and feeling antsy, thinking, “If we could just meet that old woman already, I would know so much more about what’s going on!” When you’re writing for the reader, you need to act like a luxury hotel that anticipates their guest’s every need, from just the right number of towels to the preferred newspaper by the door in the morning. That lets your audience relax and surrender to the experience.

Having troubling figuring out how to anticipate reader wants in your story? Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll help you make sure you’re writing for the reader.

Having More Than One Literary Agent for Different Books

At conferences, I used to get frequent questions about having more than one literary agent. This version of that question comes from Wendy:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

having more than one literary agent, multiple literary agents
While it probably won’t come to fisticuffs, having multiple literary agents in children’s publishing could get real hairy, real fast.

It Depends on the Agency

A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post about writing in different genres). When I worked at Movable Type, I also expected to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I was the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

It Boils Down to Ownership

Suppose you have multiple literary agents for a picture book, a chapter book, and a middle grade book. (This is a pie in the sky scenario that assumes you write well in all three categories, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!” This is when having more than one literary agent can get hairy.

Who Gets Compensated?

Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your multiple literary agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

If you write for multiple audiences, rather than having more than one literary agent, you need to seek a representative who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

Having More Than One Literary Agent is Okay When…

For example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits having more than one literary agent, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

Writing a Literary Adaptation

A quick question with a quick answer about writing a literary adaptation, whether you’re doing a PB or a YA novel inspired by a classic tale (folklore, Shakespeare, etc.). This comes from Randi:

Do you think the re-writing of a classic picture book with a different protagonist and different word choice, but with the same setting could be marketable or are the classics hands-off?

literary adaptation, writing an adaptation
If you’re writing an adaptation of a classic story, you need to add your own twist to it.

Add Value to Your Literary Adaptation

Every time you do a literary adaptation, you have to add value to it. Changing a few details around (this includes wording, names, location, time period) but keeping the story premise intact is just you letting the original do most of the work, so I don’t see the benefit. Anybody could do that, and publishers are looking to publish a creator and a voice that are unique. The best adaptations are INSPIRED by a classic but then go off in their own completely fresh directions.

A Twist on Cinderella

My favorite curve-ball example to give when people are talking about adapting classics is CINDER by Marissa Meyer. The original tale is, obviously, Cinderella, but this is a futuristic book where Cinderella is a cyborg working in a scrap heap in New Beijing and there’s an entire civilization of Lunar people. At least that’s what it was back when I read it as a manuscript. That is certainly much more impressive and imaginative than changing a few names and locations.

Let’s put it this way: If Marissa Meyer had not brought the core concept of CINDER to the Cinderella story, there would be no book. She didn’t just tinker with the original, she took the entire thing apart, repainted it, and put it back together her own way. A literary adaptation in today’s market takes nothing less.

Are you thinking of writing an adaptation? I’d love to be your developmental editor and help you workshop ideas for putting your own twist on a classic tale.

Immortality in Fiction and Writing Immortal Characters

“The Problem With Immortality in Fiction” doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by* But writing immortal characters has a few pitfalls. Read on.

immortality in fiction, writing immortal characters, writing immortality, novels about immortal characters
Calling all vampires: This neck is available. Kthnx.

But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.

High Stakes Situations are Difficult to Write

The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.

So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.

How to Make High Stakes Believable, Even With Immortality in Fiction

Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.

Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.

Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.

Struggling with building believable stakes and tension. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can make sure your novel hits the right emotional notes to pull readers in.

Writing Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about writing animal characters. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

writing animal characters, talking animals
If you’re writing animal characters, it should be because your particular story wouldn’t work any other way.

Animal Stories: Not Quite as Popular Anymore

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Are Animals Better Suited For Difficult Stories?

Darshana brings up an interesting point. Are talking animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for writing animal characters, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

Are Animal Characters Integral to Your Story?

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include talking animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

It’s a Matter of Personal Taste

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with talking animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal characters simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Writing Animal Characters: The Overall Market Trend

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto talking animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. This is a critical point to keep in mind when you’re approaching how to write a character. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.

My developmental editing services will help you determine which kinds of characters (whether animal or human) will best suit the needs of your story.

How to Create a Story Opening Line

Your story opening line is what pulls the reader in. Here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of novel opening lines from published works and why they work so well.

story opening line, novel opening lines
Your story opening line has the power to draw your reader in. Are you making the most of it?

Story Opening Line: Picture Book

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

Story Opening Line: Middle Grade

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test (follow the link for more tips on what makes a good novel first line), but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

Story Opening Line: Young Adult

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these novel opening lines have been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have it: an analysis of novel opening lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

Story of a Sale: Fly a Little Higher, Piper Lee by Dianna Dorisi Winget

Not every sale happens quickly or easily, but when you finally make that connection with a project like this, it’s very gratifying. Such is the story of the middle-grade novel FLY A LITTLE HIGHER, PIPER LEE, by Dianna Dorisi Winget, pictured below.

Dianna was one of my first clients and I loved everything about Piper Lee DeLuna’s sweet, salty, and Southern middle-grade voice. This book is the story of a girl who holds out hope that her pilot daddy is still alive after a crash…a belief that keeps her from embracing her mother’s plans to remarry and rebuild the family. You can check out a beautiful teaser page for it here. PIPER LEE had been in the works since 2003 and Dianna writes:

I’m not from the South but I’ve always been intrigued with it and had a lot of fun doing research on Georgia, which is the setting I chose. In 2004, I won a scholarship to attend the famous Highlights Children’s Writers Workshop at Chautauqua in New York based on the first chapter of Piper Lee. While at the conference, my mentor, author Juanita Havill, gave me lots of encouragement and advised me to find an agent enthusiastic for middle grade fiction and not to settle for anything less.

I spent the next year querying at least thirty agents. I received a lot of ‘personal’ rejections and scribbled notes of praise but no takers. Frustrated, I set PIPER LEE on the back burner. But I never actually forgot about Piper Lee. How can you forget about a story you love so much? So in 2009 I bought the latest edition of the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and decided to give it another go.

I very methodically narrowed my list of prospective agents down to 15 and sent out my first batch of five e-queries. Mary Kole was one of the five, and within a few short weeks she’d requested the whole manuscript, read it and called to offer representation! After seven long, doubt filled years I’d finally found someone as passionate and excited about Piper Lee as me.

But connecting with me was only one piece of the puzzle. What Dianna and Piper Lee’s Dream Team needed was an editor who loved her as much as we did. That part turned out to be more difficult, as contemporary coming-of-age MG came to be seen as “too quiet” in the marketplace around the time we submitted. I went out with PIPER LEE in January 2009. One of the editors on my first list was Harcourt VP and editorial director Jeannette Larson, who I had just met in San Diego. She was busy with a move to the New York office and so she passed it on to her assistant, Adah Nuchi.

Adah says:

I took a quick glance at the first page and was immediately drawn in by the Southern voice and fantastically spunky main character. The very next day I sent Jeannette an email that began, “I took a sneak peek at the first couple of pages of Fly A Little Higher, Piper Lee and have to admit, I couldn’t stop reading after that!” A few months later I was still thinking about Piper Lee and reread it to see if it still held the same spark. It did. While Jeannette really liked it, she wasn’t sure it was quite strong enough to acquire, but she did mention to Mary that I had loved it.

With some other feedback in mind, I advised Dianna to revise PIPER LEE so that we could send it out to a second round of editors, including Piper Lee fans Jeannette and Adah. Since Dianna had seen a lot of rejection for PIPER LEE over the years, she wasn’t really excited about its chances. She writes:

When I signed on with Mary, I was overflowing with hope and optimism. But after the first long round of submissions and no takers I was very discouraged. I thought, “See, I knew it was stupid to get my hopes up. Who am I trying to fool?” And then after I did the big revision you asked for and it headed out on its second round, I tried to be optimistic again but it was tough. This little voice inside my head kept saying, “You don’t really think this is ever actually going to sell, do you?” Even when we started getting positive feedback from Jeannette and Adah, I really expected it to turn out the way all the other positive responses I’d gotten over the years had turned out.

But I wouldn’t give up. I love PIPER LEE so dang much that I knew this book would find a home. During the second round, though, Jeannette and Adah, who were the most passionate about it from day one, wanted another revision. This was tough news to break to Dianna, and, of course, I had a few moments of doubt myself, but I really wanted to follow through and give PIPER LEE one last shot. Adah recaps:

After Dianna revisited the story over the summer of 2010, Mary sent the revision to Jeannette and reminded her that this was the manuscript her assistant had loved. I read Dianna’s revision and liked the direction she had taken it, but it still needed some work. I was enthusiastic enough about Piper Lee that Jeannette was willing to hand the project over to me to see if I could help get it where it needed to be for acquisition. I sent editorial comments in January of 2011 and received Dianna’s second revision in April. After that it was just a matter of getting the right approvals, and luckily everyone in-house loved the manuscript, too.

Finally, in May of 2011, more than a year after I first sent PIPER LEE into the world, after over 30 agent rejections, two dozen editor declines, and two serious revisions, I knew we were very close. Adah wrote that she was putting together an offer! I couldn’t wait to tell Dianna the great news!

Dianna remembers:

Honestly, it wasn’t until Mary told me that not only did Adah love it but that her publisher had given wholehearted support to acquiring it, that I finally started to allow myself to get excited. Then when I came home that day and heard Mary’s message on the machine asking me to call, that’s when I finally started to believe.

Every sale is gratifying and unique, and I’m so happy that I had faith in PIPER LEE from the very beginning. I sometimes had to have enough faith to keep Dianna excited, too, but all of her hard work paid off and now FLY A LITTLE HIGHER, PIPER LEE will soar on Harcourt’s 2012 list!

Adah writes:

It was a long process from first submission to acquisition, but I’m so excited to be able to share Piper Lee with readers.

Workshop #3

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!