I get about 10 queries for fiction every day. Most of the time I reject them after only reading the query letter and try to send a timely and polite reply. If my curiosity is piqued, I’ll request the first 10 pages of the manuscript. And if I get excited by that, I’ll ask for the complete manuscript. Fiction is so hard to sell that I end up representing only a few titles a year out of the several thousand submissions received. What really surprised me when I first started evaluating fiction is that I could usually tell by the end of the first page, sometimes by the end of the first paragraph, whether the writer had talent or not. I thought perhaps there was something wrong with my own critical faculties. But when I asked experienced book editors, they acknowledged that they do the same.
Last year at the Book Passage Children’s Writers Conference, I sat in on a wonderful workshop conducted by author Kristin Tracy about young adult fiction. We spent a lot of time looking at some examples of first paragraphs. And we talked about why they worked and how they were able to express so much in so few words.
So today I’m going to use 3 examples of beginnings of some young adult titles and try to understand what makes them work. Let’s start with Kristin Tracy’s first novel and see how she does it.
Lost It, Kristin Tracy
“I didn’t start out my junior year of high school planning to lose my virginity to Benjamin Easter – a senior – at his parent’s cabin in Island Park underneath a sloppily patched, unseaworthy, upside down canoe. Up to that point I’d been somewhat of a prude who’d avoided the outdoors, especially the wilderness, for the sole purpose that I didn’t want to be eaten alive.”
Kristin likes to write stories that start right out of the gate. No prologues, no weather reports. And I think that is generally a good idea. She gets a lot of information out in the first 2 sentences without sacrificing the very engaging and natural voice of the narrator. We learn in the first 15 words that this is going to be a story about losing your virginity. We know that the narrator is 16 and her “seducer is probably 17. Important information for a teen reader. We learn that the critical incident occurs under an old canoe somewhere in the wilderness. And we also know from the writing a lot about the tone of the book. The book will probably be funny, given the lighthearted voice of the narrator and even more the comical description of the place where she lost it. It wasn’t in a grave yard or a haunted house (for a paranormal novel). It didn’t take place on the field of Gettysburg (historical). Or in Middle Earth (fantasy). It’s just a cabin by the lake (or something). A realistic genre with a realistic story. The style is fun and you gotta love the character after just these 2 lines.
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time thinking about death.
“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”
Sometimes it’s hard to define great writing. But I usually know it when I see it. John Green tells us in the first sentence that this is not going to be a whimsical book. And he tells us in the second sentence that it is about disease. And in the 4th sentence, about dying. But what makes this short passage amazing is the way the words get put together and the way the sentences sound when you are reading them. Try reading it out loud. It seems effortless, but it isn’t. Look at his careful selection of words. “Winter”, for instance. I think that word really sets the stage for a book with a lot of elegiac qualities in style and content. This wouldn’t work at all if it began in the spring with blossoms bursting forth. Check out the cadence in these first few sentences. The first sentence is long, lots of subordinate clauses. The second sentence is of a normal length. The third, shorter still and with a kind of staccato feel to it. All a build up to the last sentence, made all the more dramatic by the brilliant use of the rhetorical repetitions of “depression” and “side effect”. A powerful release that hits the reader with a wallop.
A less experienced writer might have started this story: “I woke up feeling depressed…again. It was, after all, my seventeenth birthday. I pulled myself out of bed and looked out the window. More snow. The third time this week.”
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
“I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so broken down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a rain drop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”
We all know that this book is based upon Katniss’s decision to risk her own life to save her sister’s. And most of the book is about the violence and the horrors of The Hunger Games. To me it seems perfect that Collins begins the book by painting this incredibly intimate scene at home as a contrast to what will befall Katniss in the coming story. Think about the evocative atmosphere of intimacy and love Collins creates in this scene. Katniss’s fingers stretching out, Prim’s warmth. Climbing in bed with the mother where she is curled up. A lot of manuscripts I see from inexperienced writers have similes and figures of speech that seem overwritten and usually miss the mark. But here Prim has a face “as fresh as a rain drop”. It’s simple and short and profoundly expressive. Even the choice of the words adds to the feeling of warmth of the scene (curled, cocooned, cheeks, rain drop, primrose). The few words Collins uses to describe her mother tell us about the harsh conditions of the post-apocalyptic world they live in and prefigure the story to come.