22 Apr

YA Cafe: 5 Essentials For a Story Starter

Posted in Kid Lit, Literature, Reading, Teen Lit, YA Cafe

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I’m your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We’ve also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today’s Special: What makes for a successful story starter?

Starting a novel or short story is like making a promise to the reader.  You set up rules and expectations that your readers will rely on as they read your piece.  Specifically, there are five things that you should establish early on in your story to gain the reader’s trust.  Delaying or changing these elements on your reader will create tension and while that might get the reader’s attention, it will also mean you’ll have to work that much harder to gain back the reader’s trust during the rest of the story.

5 Essential Things You Promise to Your Reader:

1) You promise a character.
From the get-go your readers will want to know who they’re supposed to root for.  Sometimes writers will artfully delay the appearance of the main character in order to create anticipation or to reflect the character’s personality, but this is very unusual.  In most cases, the protagonist usually appears in the first chapter, and is often the very first character the reader sees.

A great example of a delayed main character from children’s literature is The Wainscott Weasel by Tor Seidler, in which the protagonist does not appear at all in the first chapter.  (OK, this example isn’t YA, but it’s such a great example, I couldn’t resist.)  Another example, of course, is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, in which Elizabeth’s ultimate love interest–Mr. Darcy–doesn’t appear until well into the story.  In the case of both books, these characters are introverted and shy.  By holding the characters back and making the reader wait for them, the authors show us this facet of their personalities.

2) You promise the voice.
The voice of the narration is central to establishing the mood of the story.  Compare the opening sentences to the following novels and notice the different moods that they convey.

“Everyone thinks it was because of the snow.  And in a way, I suppose that’s true.”
                  ~Gayle Forman, If I Stay
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to totally suck.”
                  ~M.T. Anderson, Feed
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
                  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Point of view (POV) is also central to the voice and mood.  Notice that in the three above examples, all of the narrators were in the first person, which allows us to hear the character’s voice.  There are other scenarios where the narrator is not the protagonist, but the voice of the protagonist still comes through loud and clear in dialogue.

3) You promise the world.
Promise the world?  As in the whole world?  It might sound huge but it’s not just any world you’re promising, it’s your world.  It’s the world of your book.  It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing either.  Whether you’re writing contemporary YA set in a regular suburb, or some elaborate fantasy story set in another world, you have to let your reader into that world and it must feel real.

4) You promise a problem.
From minute one, your reader has to know that there’s a problem the character is facing.  Whether that problem is explicit (like the family’s financial state in Pride and Prejudice) or a mystery (like in If I Stay) we know from the first moment that the character is facing some difficulty, some problem.  This promise is essential because whatever this problem is, it will be crucial in establishing the central conflict for your story.

5) You promise an event.
Every book opens with some sort of event that kick-starts the story.  In If I Stay, the event is huge and turns the characters’ lives upside-down (not gonna say what it is, in case any of you reader-friends haven’t read it yet).  In Catcher in the Rye, Holden leaves boarding school and that sets off the chain of events that is the story.  In Feed, we start by going to the moon to have fun and the story unravels from there.  Whether the event simply nudges the story into motion or gives it a sharp shove, there must be an event early on that gets the story started.  Your reader will be waiting for that event, so you will need to deliver.  Try not to delay it for too long.

What do you think?  Any promises I missed and any you’d like to add? 

Want to hear more about YA story starters?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you think!


17 Feb

The Answer is In the Work

Posted in Conferences, Kid Lit, SCBWI, Teen Lit, Writing

All you have to do is glance at the twitter feed for the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC (#ny11scbwi) to know that Sara Zarr seriously rocked the house.  There have been numerous recap posts about her talk.  My favorites include:

Jenny Torres Sanchez [Read. Write. Suffer.Sara Zarr at SCBWI–VALIDATION!

Candy Gourlay [Notes from the Slushpile] NYC 2011: Sara Zarr gives the speech she wanted to hear.

Now it’s been two weeks since the conference and as I sit down to write this post, I can’t shake that feeling of dread… that feeling that no matter what I write here, it could never do justice to the AWESOME that was Sara Zarr’s actual speech.  With that in mind, I have come to the conclusion that I will not do a recap.  Yes, I have pages and pages of notes.  Yes, I could give you a long list of all the amazing things she said.  But I could never manage to recreate the energy that filled the room while she said it.  So rather than try and fail miserably, I will simply try something else.

“The answer is in the work.”  Even as I write this post, I realize how true Sara Zarr’s statement is.  The answer isn’t some elusive thing floating out in the ether.  The answer is in the work.  All the things Sara Zarr listed as being essential to a fulfilling creative life are simply ways of taking the focus from neurotic writer-selves and channeling it toward the work.

Here are some of the qualities that Sara Zarr mentioned that lead to a fulfilling creative life (and obstacles that get in our way):

  • Sustainable
  • Engaging (as opposed to Disenchanting)
  • Invites Company but Knows When to Send Company Away (as opposed to Inviting the WRONG Company)
  • Faith-Based (as opposed to having a Lack of Faith)
  • Gives Back (as opposed to being Self-Obsessed)
  • Practice and Craft are central (as opposed to emphasizing Process or the Commodification of Creativity)

As I look down that list, I realize that writers will tap into all of the qualities of a fulfilling creative life the moment they focus on loving the work.  If you love the work, it will sustain you and engage you even when the people around you are not supportive.  If you love the work, you’ll invite good company into your circle of trust and send the bad company away.  If you love the work, you’ll have faith that someday, good things will happen even if the present moment kind of stinks.

“The true goal to strive for is to love doing the work.”  ~Sara Zarr

Notice also that all the obstacles that oppose those good qualities of a fulfilling creative life can get knocked down the minute we start loving the work.  If we love the work, it’s hard to be self-obsessed or to commodify our creativity.  The work will have inherent meaning to us, not just meaning defined by what other people think of our work.

Ultimately, writers need to love doing the work and believe that there’s enough generosity in the universe to go around.  In the words of Flannery O’Connor: “People without hope do not write novels.”

In closing, there is a line in that movie Pushing Tin, and it sums up the writing experience for me.  This one air traffic controller is returning to work after having a meltdown and his therapist has given him a mantra: “It’s a big sky, there’s lots of room.”

I feel like that mantra captures the writing life beautifully.  This isn’t a zero-sum game.  OK, it might be if your end-goal is to have a #1 bestseller or win some prestigious award–but that doesn’t necessarily make for a fulfilling creative life (and can lead to a lot of stress and neuroses).  But if the goal is to love doing the work, then there’s plenty of good stuff in the universe to go around.  It’s a big sky.  There’s plenty of room for everybody.


14 Feb

My Funny Valentine: A Contest!

Posted in Kid Lit, Literature, Reading, Teen Lit

I’m one of those people who utterly detests Valentine’s day.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a wonderful valentine in my life for going on ten years now, so it’s not out of bitterness that I dislike this holiday so much.  Mostly it’s because of logistics; this grotesque little holiday falls two days before my birthday.  Every year.  I also have serious issues with a holiday that encourages numerous affronts to the English language in the form of cheesy song lyrics, sappy monologues and bad poetry.

Someone needs to do something to improve the overall literary quality of Valentine’s day and I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to accomplish this is by having a CONTEST!!!

What you need to do:  Write a valentine from one literary character to another and post it in the comments.  Easy right?  Here are a few more details:

  • Contest is Open Until: Precisely 11:59pm EST on Feb. 16 at which time I will close comments on this post.
  • Finalists:  Will be selected by moi, and will be announced on Saturday, Feb 19.  Once I announce the finalists, I’ll set up a poll so everyone can vote for the Grand Poobah of Valentine Literary Awesome.  I will post to let you know when the poll opens.
  • Prize:  $15 Amazon.com Gift Card to the Grand Prize Winner!
    Get extra bonus points and kudos in the first round if you: 
    • Use characters from children’s literature or teen literature.
    • Pair two unlikely valentines in such a way that it goes from bizarre to deliciously ridiculous!
    • Make me laugh so hard I snort milk out of my nose.
    • Make me sob so much I think my heart might break.
    • (But really, I like laughing better than sobbing.  Just FYI.)

    Ready… Set… Write!


    08 Feb

    NYC Awesome for Writers

    Posted in Kid Lit, NYC, Teen Lit

    New York City is a great place to be a writer.  OK, I was born and raised in Manhattan so I’ll admit that I’m a little bit biased.  Setting that aside, this city has some wonderful things going on for writers.  Here are some of my favorites.

    Readings and Events
    Conferences are loads of fun, but they can also get expensive and exhausting.  If you’re in the NYC area, though, and you’re craving some writerly fun that’s easy on your wallet and schedule, there are a few great options.

    • Teen Author Festival (NYPL Jefferson Market Branch on 6th Ave and W. 10th Street)  This is a fantastic monthly reading event.  For more info and a schedule, check out the Teen Author Festival group on Facebook.
    • Brooklyn Book Festival (Brooklyn Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon St.)  The next Brooklyn Book Festival will be on Sunday, Sept. 18th, 2011.

    Favorite Places to Caffeinate and Write
    Grab that notebook and pen, and treat yourself to a writing date.  Places I love:

    • s’Nice  (Manhattan–45 8th Ave, btwn Jane St. and West 4th; Brooklyn–315 5th Ave, btwn 2nd and 3rd St)  Yummy vegetarian food and their coffee drinks are delish.  Also, while the do have rules about laptops–communal tables only–the staff is really cool about letting people sit for a while.
    • Lincoln Center Atrium (Broadway btwn 62nd and 63rd Street)  The Atrium has got to be one of New York’s best-kept secrets.  It’s got ample seating and it’s an open public space so you can sit there all day.  Sometimes they close the space for private events, but they’re really good about giving advanced notice.  Also, there are free concerts there weekly.
    • Aroma (72nd Street btwn Columbus and Amsterdam Ave.)  OK, this place seriously makes the best cappuccinos EVER.  And the outdoor patio upstairs and in the back is one of the best places I’ve found for summer writing.

    Other Awesome Stuff

    • NYPL (Main Branch on 42nd Street)  They have all sorts of amazing items in their collection, including the original Winnie the Pooh toys.
    • 826NYC An affiliate of 826 Valencia, this Brooklyn-based organization is a great way for writers give back to the community by working with kids on their writing.  This is an amazing place where writers interested in teaching can gain valuable experience.  It’s also a great way for writers to meet and connect with other writers–I know I’ve made some great writing friends through 826.  For more information about the program or to volunteer check out 826NYC.org Oh, and did I mention that the center is located behind the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company?  How cool is that!


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