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.

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.

Writing Young Adult Romance: Crushes and Chemistry

On Monday, I talked about passion vs commercial fiction, and we’re going to continue the “love” theme today with a discussion about writing young adult romance. There’s one crush/love/relationship-related pet peeve I have, and I think I share it with everyone that’s read contemporary YA romance or characters like Bella Swan (or the related Anastasia Steele from 50 Shades of Grey). It’s this: a total lack of chemistry and genuine attraction.

writing young adult romance, ya romance
You’re writing young adult romance and love is in the air. But are you creating genuine chemistry between your characters?

YA romance is ridiculously popular. If you’ve ever heard me speak or listened to a webinar of mine, you know it’s because I think that teens lack the real life experience of true romance (the daring, self-sacrificing, all-consuming kind) and so they strive to live vicariously. Fiction and movies often provide teens with much bigger love fantasies than their daily prospects do–that guy asking you over to play Xbox, that girl texting all through dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. So good news if you’re writing YA romance: a big, romantic read is incredibly attractive.

Writing Young Adult Romance: Find the Chemistry

Speaking of which, most YA romance books are all about attraction. In other words, completely superficial. I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts (and, to a lesser extent, published books) that put two characters together whose only real reason for being in a “relationship” is that they find one another extremely hot. Hot is fine for an instant connection. Physical attraction makes us notice other people. But then the relationship has to evolve into something with a bit more substance. To make a believable love story, you need the initial spark, but also the moment when it turns into real emotions. You need those scenes where characters make true connections, where they dream up a future, where they live in the present. And those become part of a relationship’s shared history as the story progresses.

Many people who are writing young adult romance stop at the initial attraction. Every time a girl looks at her newly minted boyfriend, she thinks about how utterly hot he is. Not about an inside joke. Not about the way his feet smell kinda funny but she manages to find it charming. Not about how he always picks out the green M&Ms and gives them to her because he knows she likes it. She instead goes on and on about his sculpted cheekbones and soulful eyes and all manner of other such drivel.

Relationships are Like Characters

Writing YA romance that’s complex and conveys chemistry that’s NOT about physical characteristics is extremely difficult. But if you do it well, you have a vast and hungry audience waiting for you, as demonstrated by the Twilight success and now the more mainstream adult presence of 50 Shades of Grey. (Which, yes, I did hear a lot about at Bologna and finally managed to read…I won’t write anything more about it than that because my grandmother once told me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”)

Go back to every scene where your romantic leads interact. For every physical description, insert a thought about the present or future or a characterizing detail for the other character. Give us a bit of playful dialogue that shows us, rather than tells us, how the characters get along as people who are creating a bond. Don’t settle for attraction in the physical sense. Give us the moment when they fall in love–truly in love–on the page. We all know this instant, when our entire thinking shifts and things become magic. The impossible seems possible. Those stinky feet suddenly don’t matter.

Include Actions and Reactions

Love and attraction are also about action (er, not that kind quite yet). We behave differently toward our beloveds than we do toward anyone else. Love makes us selfless, crazy, impulsive, brave, vulnerable. How do your character’s actions toward their crushes change as the relationship progresses? How do those actions change the characters? The relationship? Make sure that every plot point and action between your lovers resonates emotionally to either build or break down (the course of true love never did run smooth) your Romeo and Juliet as people. This is all part of building that common relationship history.

When you’re writing young adult romance, here are some points to keep in mind: What plot point touches off the chemical reaction of love in your novel? What happens during? After? What does your character think about when they’re anywhere near their beloved? What do they do? This is the stuff you should be thinking about…not his sculpted cheekbones*.

* Though I just saw the Hunger Games movie** and…yeehaw! Check out the jawline on that Josh Hutcherson! (I feel a little old and cougar-y saying that about a 19-year-old.)

** With my mom, whose birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

For Crying Out Loud: Writing Emotion Effectively

It’s my belief that the chief goal of writing fiction is to make a reader care — and writing emotion effectively is key to achieving that goal. Without that emotional investment, you’d be wasting even the most kick-butt plot and the most ingenious characters. Without an emotional connection, the rest of your hard work will never take off.

writing emotion, writing drama
If you want me to rise to serious emotions with your characters, I need a good reason to go there with them.

Give Me A Reason

That’s why I get frustrated with writers who expect me to rise to serious emotions without giving me a reason. A great example is writing emotion — intense emotion — in the first chapter, before I’ve had a chance to bond with the character. Let’s say the book opens with a funeral for the character’s father. They are a wreck, weeping all over the place, inconsolable. You’d think that a funeral scene would automatically elicit strong emotions in the reader, but you’d be wrong.

Simply writing drama doesn’t make a reader care. If I’m just meeting your character, I don’t know anything about them. And while funerals are sad, yes, and crying is sad, sure, I will not automatically match emotions just because they are presented on the page.

Writing Emotion Effectively Requires Interiority

Similarly, I don’t much like to see crying for crying’s sake. There are manuscripts I’ve read where the author seems to have lost all restraint when it comes to writing drama. Characters are screaming, raging, crying, laughing, and every other powerful emotion in between. But they fail to strike a chord. Why? Because rather than seeing those external displays of emotion, I’d rather know the exact thoughts that bring those tears about. Instead of saying, “She wept bitterly as they lowered the casket into the ground,” I’d prefer to read something like, “Of all things to think in this moment, she remembered the stupid joke birthday card she was planning on giving him next week, and how she’d never hear him laugh about it.” The thought that triggers the tears, whether it’s rational or completely random, like the above, is always much more powerful when you’re writing emotion. I know more about the character and her relationship to her now-dead father from the specific second example, and that makes me more invested. It helps me to form that emotional bond.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Another thing to think about, and this I borrow from Robert McKee and his scriptwriting Bible, STORY: The Law of Diminishing Returns. The first time you see something, it’s powerful and it gets your attention. Like a rip-roaring action sequence in a summer blockbuster. “Awesome,” you think, “that semi just totally just clipped that low-flying police helicopter,” or whatever. But if the movie keeps throwing insane chase sequences at you, they’re going to have less and less of an effect. This principle makes many things in life possible. Think about doctors. They may feel queasy digging into their first cadaver, but by the end of medical school, they’re mucking around in bodies like champs.

When you’re writing emotion, don’t hit your reader with intense feelings over and over again because you mistake this for making your audience care. If people aren’t attaching to your characters or their struggles, the answer isn’t to make them cry or rage more or more often, it’s to carefully choose your moments of high emotion, motivate them well, and really let us into the character’s experience.

Be Thoughtful And Intentional When Writing Emotion

Again, I’ve read many manuscripts (especially YA), where a vexed and emotional teen cries all the time, constantly flying off the handle. Instead of bringing me into that character’s world, the author’s attempt at writing drama turns me off, and keeps pushing me away the longer the tantrums continue.

We all are hard-wired to respond to emotions, but it’s the way in which you present those moments in your fiction that will make all the difference.

My manuscript critique services will help you write authentic emotion that prioritizes quality over quantity.

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.

New Adult and College-Aged YA Protagonists

If you’re interested in writing new adult or fiction with college-aged young adult protagonists, read on. This question comes from Christina Marie:

Should YA only be centered on high school aged characters or can a novel expand into the college years, mainly the freshman year, and still be considered a YA novel? Is it hard to sell a book that has the setting on a college campus instead of a private or high school setting? Personally, do you stray away from novels set for that age group and setting or do you wish you could see more of it in your inbox?

new adult, college aged young adult, young adult market, pitching young adult, how to write and publish young adult
Thinking of writing new adult or YA with a college-aged protagonist?

The whole “New Adult” “trend” that we all heard about on Twitter a year ago is the work of one imprint (St. Martin’s) at one publishing house (Macmillan). It has failed to take off. A few other publishers have tried to publish books with college-age protagonists, THE IVY out from Greenwillow comes to mind, but they’ve failed, in my opinion, to get traction.

Is New Adult a Real Category?

Just because we heard a lot about New Adult, it’s wishful thinking. There is a Middle Grade (sometimes called Independent Reader) shelf and a Young Adult shelf at most bookstores. There is no New Adult shelf, and they’re not sharpening their saws to build one anytime soon.

Imagine the difference between going to middle school and going to high school. Your world completely changes once you cross this threshold. Now imagine what a huge shift it is to go from high school to college. In high school, you’re worried about taking SATs or passing your driver’s test or making out with your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you fail a class, you are going to get grounded, because you still live at home.

The Problem With College-Aged Young Adult Protagonists

In college, you are on your own for likely the first time. The stakes are much higher, you don’t care about the SATs anymore, and you can drop a class without telling anyone. The choices you make don’t determine which college you’ll get into, they determine your career and the rest of your life as a real adult.

If I’m sixteen, I’m not going to be able to relate to the problems of a college-age kid, just because the frame of reference is so drastically different. It’s all about relatability. And that’s why I don’t think New Adult holds any water in this marketplace. I’m open to changing my mind but so far the evidence isn’t convincing. If I had my druthers, nobody would ever mention New Adult to me again until it was a real phenomenon, and I’m almost always skeptical of writers who simply have to set their YA novel during the college years.

Wondering where your novel idea fits in the marketplace? Market analysis is part of many of my editorial services.

Young Adult Fiction for Boys and the Male Protagonist Issue

Here is a question about young adult fiction for boys and the male protagonist in YA from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

young adult fiction for boys, male protagonist, boy YA, teen boy book, teen boy young adult, teen boy YA
Thinking of writing young adult fiction for boys? Here’s how the male protagonist factored into this market, and it may not be great.

Is There Really a Young Adult Fiction for Boys Market?

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap with the male protagonist issue in YA.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13.

Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job. (More considerations of teen boy books here.)

How to Make the Male Protagonist Work in YA

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. Through to You by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

Other recent examples of boy characters tend to strongly feature female protagonists as well. So this puts the lie to the idea of “young adult fiction for boys,” because the closest we’re getting is “young adult fiction for both … but mostly girls.” Here, I’m thinking of The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated. Though books like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline prove me wrong, but notice that it wasn’t published as YA.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. Feed by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. All I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

If you’re writing a male protagonist, maybe your work can be slotted elsewhere. I can help you with market considerations as well as craft ideas as your developmental editor.

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.

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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.

Writing Young Adult Fiction: the High School Hierarchy

A very interesting conversation about writing young adult fiction happened in one of my workshop groups during this past weekend’s Big Sur conference. One participant had painted a character very vividly in his particular high school environment, to the point where everyone in the group knew exactly where this character belonged on the social ladder. But that wasn’t the unique part.

writing young adult fiction, writing about high school
Writing about high school: are you conveying the social climate without the usual telling?

Writing Young Adult Fiction: Show, Don’t Tell

The refreshing thing was that this character never lamented his nerd status, he never described his clothes in a way that hinted to us that he was (let’s face it) a loser, he didn’t go into any detail about how out-of-reach the popular kids were. He just went about his business, thought his thoughts, and through the author’s scenework and his interactions with others, we got perfect context for where he lived in the high school hierarchy. But never once (in my recollection) did he come out and tell us exactly where he did or didn’t fit in.

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But writing young adult fiction that touches on the teenage social order is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores. The fact is: it’s true. So if we’re writing about high school, how do we reflect it in a way that’s believable?

The Tired Run-Down of the Social Scene

Most people who are writing young adult fiction include a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

the Goths, with their black eyeliner, the emo kids sulking into their genderless thrift store cardigans, the cheerleaders puffing out their push-up bra-enhanced chests at the jocks, who are crushing soda cans on their foreheads and emitting caveman grunts…

Etc. Etc. Etc. I have read this list in probably every well-meaning YA manuscript and many published books. The thing is, most YA readers will know the high school archetypes. They don’t need some thirtysomething (and, lest anyone get offended, let me repeat, again, well-meaning) writing about high school in such detail. Most writers include this obligatory run-down for their own sake, to get the lay of their land and to put themselves back into the high school mindset as they write.

Sublimate the Atmosphere

So when we’re writing young adult fiction, how do we convey this atmosphere more organically? How do we sublimate it without the usual telling, without the list of the school’s cliques? I’d love to hear some examples in the comments of books that you think paint a social picture without being too obvious about it. One great exception to the tried-and-true high school hierarchy descriptions, fresh in my mind because I recently reread it, is BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver.

The main character, Sam Kingston, is a popular girl, and a bitchy one, at that, but Oliver describes Sam’s unique take on the social hierarchy in a fresh and very voice-driven way. There’s also a lot of tension inherent in the story premise, so whenever Sam describes her peer group, there’s something working beneath the surface, also. So Oliver doesn’t necessarily get away without any telling, but this is one instance where it worked for me.

Examples, Anyone?

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on writing about high school that avoids talking about the social structure altogether. And here’s the kicker — it still manages to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.