The All-Important Beginning and a Call for Submissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 Replies to “The All-Important Beginning and a Call for Submissions”

  1. Jen Zeman says:

    Thanks Mary! I don’t always comment but read your blog/follow you on Twitter faithfully because your advice is fantastic. I’ll be submitting!

  2. I’m so glad you’re doing this again. I can’t wait till this workshop is posted. You’re awesome for doing this and teaching us SO much!

  3. KDuBayGillis says:

    I’ve read HOOKED and really liked it. (Hopefully what I learned from it actually comes through in my work.) I love it when you workshop stuff. Such a great learning experience for everyone. Good luck to everyone who submits and thank you for your willingness to share!!!

  4. Do you want exactly 500 words, or where it would end naturally at the end of a paragraph, say 600 (if applicable)?

  5. Very cool! I think I’ll have to throw something in the ring this time around. Thanks!

  6. Stephanie Garber says:

    I love that you are doing this Mary! Even if I don’t get picked for the critique, I already can’t wait to read the pages you do critique.

  7. Hi Mary,
    I loved HOOKED. It was the first book that really got me thinking about inciting incidents. I’m happy you advise to “start in the right place and stay there for a bit before yanking us away from it” because, in my attempts at improving pacing, I have a tendency to dart away from my beginnings too quickly. I’m off to tweet about your exciting contest.

  8. Thanks for offering to do this, Mary. Your advice is always so specific and makes me read my work in ways I didn’t think of before.

  9. Wait…this means I would have to start writing the actual book? *pauses* *looks around* Maybe I’ll wait for the finalists? Although this really sounds like a great opportunity! 😀 Thanks!

  10. I own the book and love it! I’ve emailed my first 500. We shall see if I actually absorbed any of Hooked, huh? 🙂

  11. Goody, goody, I love a good showcase and dissection. I’m in for 500 words. Thanks for doing this, Mary!

  12. Yay for good beginnings!

    I have the rare problem, I always start too far into the action. Almost every single book I’ve written has needed a new beginning, and usually one that starts earlier. Now I just expect it and put it on my revision list. 🙂

  13. I thought my beginning was pretty good until I marked off 500 words and realized those words wouldn’t tell you what I want you to know about the story…so, off to edit some more and hope I can be ready by the time submissions are closed!

  14. I’m wondering whether my beginning is too early, so I’m very much looking forward to this workshop. Thanks for doing this.

  15. You are so generous for doing this! Thank you! I learn so much through agent critiques.

  16. I love the book HOOKED. I keep going back to it and revising some more. Thanks for doing this!

  17. I’m so looking forward to this! Your contest last year, incorporating feedback for the winners, was awesome.

  18. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for doing this.

  19. Looks like I’m late to the party (as usual). But this motivated me to re-analyze the first 500 of my current WIP, so it’s all good. 😀

  20. Oh, darn it! Submisions closed already. That’s what I get for being purposeful and taking an extra day to submit… 🙂

  21. Caitlin Ownby says:

    Speaking of books, someone recommended the book STORY ENGINEERING to me. It talks not only about the beginning and the inciting incident, but how to structure the entire story. It’s helped me a lot with pacing and with deciding which scenes to scrap.

  22. Even though I’m too late to submit, but I did look at the first 500 words of my WIP and now I’m going to reread HOOKED. I do hope you’ll make some comments here about the manuscripts you did decide to use. I’m wondering if you will use only the ones that need major improvements or will you show some as good examples?

  23. Thank you so much for this recommendation! I have a MG manuscrip that needed some major revision at the beginning. I bought HOOKED on the strength of your recommendation and am already halfway through (I guess you could say I’m hooked, heh). I love it–exactly what I needed to whip my first chapter into shape!

  24. So, so disappointed! But I love HOOKED.

  25. Wow, what a great opportunity. Sorry I’m late to the game, though. Maybe next time.

    I will look into Hooked!

  26. I’ve read Hooked, but the book that made we really appreciate Les Edgerton was Finding Your Voice. He is a wonderful instructional writer.

  27. I meant ‘me’ not we. But it’s still a great book.

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