Creating A Kidlit Series Outline

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Ever had to create a series outlines for kidlit books? That’s the subject of today’s post, and it’s what I’ve been busy working on since my last one.

I’ve been writing hard since the CYA Conference a month ago. When I say writing hard, I don’t mean in the word count sense. I’ve been strategising, plotting, and weaving!

Conference Follow Up

I had a ball at CYA this year.

  • It was the first time I volunteered, which was a fun experience. Such a great team.
  • I entered my WIP Winifred Weatherby Saves the Century in the Middle Grade competition and it won second place.
  • The cash prize was nice, but what really excited me was the request for a full from the judge, an editor at a major AU publishing house. Looks like it’s time to move Winnie from the back burner to the hot plate …

Meeting Editors

As much as I love the writing and business sessions at CYA, what I appreciate most at this stage of my writing career is the opportunity to meet publishing professionals face-to-face. As always, I take advantage of CYA’s editor sessions. I pitched a couple of my manuscripts to four Australian editors and got lots of encouraging feedback and a few requests.

One editor who liked The Temple of Lost Time asked for a series outline. She rightly pointed out that taking on a series is a big commitment for a publisher. They need proof that the story can be sustained before they’ll think about taking it on.

I’ve never done a formal series outline before, and the Internet is curiously silent about how to do it for middle grade books. What I’ve learned over the past five weeks mostly through trial and error is this: outlining a series is hard work, but it’s valuable work.

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Time to Rethink My System

As a plotting pantser (or pantsing plotter, not sure which. A plantser?), the scaffolding for my story is erected before I start writing the first draft, and I build as I go. I have a mud map in my head about what happens when. I keep an ever-expanding notebook of ideas and to-dos in OneNote. This system has worked brilliantly for stand-alone stories, but a series needs more cohesion.

Outlining Series

A series outline forces the writer to build cohesion into the plan. The weft of plot is woven onto the warp of theme. Or maybe a better way of saying it is the outline lets your discover the warp of theme. Either way, it’s really helpful work, but it’s challenging.

After lots of research and tinkering, I decided to include the following elements in my series outline:

  • A series premise (one to two sentences)
  • A list of the titles in reading order
  • World-building notes (I wrote about 600 words for a three-book Gaslamp fantasy series, ~60K each)
  • Mini-synopses for each book (two to three short paragraphs)
  • A table of Story Elements [External and internal goals, setting, MDQ (Major Dramatic Question), genre-specific elements]
  • A table of Characters [I based my list loosely on the Hero’s Journey because it’s a quest book]

The tables display how the elements and characters develop across the series. This was really helpful for me. It also lets you see who might be superfluous or who’s getting too much airtime or if there’s a thread that hasn’t been tied up.

T.M.I.

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If the series outline is for your personal use, go ahead: flesh it out as much as you want. But if you’re sending it to an agent or editor, pare it back. It has to be inviting, and there’s no turn off bigger than a tome of unnecessary text.

I honed in on the main story and ignored all my tasty subplots. It’s tempting to over-explain, but don’t. You want editors to read the outline and get the gist of your story in a couple of pages. You’ll probably be sending a sample of the MS, so let it do the talking about your style and level of complexity in your story.

Over to You

What do you think about my series outline? Would you include anything else? Or omit anything I’ve suggested?

Here’s where I gleaned some ideas:

Here’s Ali’s Kidlit Series Outline Template (PDF) for you to use. Leave a comment or get in touch with the contact form on my About pages if you’d like a Word version .

All images are CC.0, Public Domain

Writer, Know Thy Genre!

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Genre choices are the most important decisions you need to make. –Shawn Coyne

Distinguishing sub-genres is important when you’re trying to pin down the genre of your own work. On the importance of genre choices, Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, says:

“Those choices will tell the reader what they are in for if they pick up your book… Deciding what Genre(s) your story will inhabit will also tell you exactly what you need to do to satisfy your potential audience’s expectations. Genre will tell you the crucial conventions and obligatory scenes you must have in your novel. …If you fail to abide by your Genre’s requirements, you will not write a story that works.” (45-46, emphasis mine)

Anybody can slap together a readable story. But to write a story that is satisfying (and, Coyne would add, commercially successful) an author has to know their genre and stick to its conventions. Miss one element and your readers will notice even if only on a subconscious level.

Writers must know mandatory scenes of their genre:

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  • If a detective novel starts with anything other than a dead body, it will flop.
  • If a superhero doesn’t battle an equally super villain, the story will fizzle.
  • Skip the torture-laden face-off between the antagonist and the hero in a thriller and readers won’t be thrilled—they’ll be miffed
  • A Gothic romance better have an ingenue, a sprawling manor (or equally impressive architecture) and a rampant lunatic or it just won’t work.

Writers must know the conventions of their genre. For example, murder mysteries include the following conventions:

  • A dead body
  • A sleuth of some permutation
  • A cast of extras, including a prime suspect, a ‘Watson,’ a witness, etc.
  • Clues and ‘red herrings.

Genre Resources

It would be handy if every genre and sub-genre had its own bible of conventions and obligatory scenes. Until that happens, writers are advised to read widely. The more intimately you know a genre, the better the feel you will have for its requirements.

Here are a couple of wonderful resources I’ve dipped into through the years–or that I’ve found and earmarked for future use. I hope you find these books and online resources helpful.

General

 

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Fantasy and Science Fiction

Narrowing this list down was really hard. I’ve included a few titles from the masters…

Romance

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Mystery/Crime

Historical Fiction

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  • Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities: A Book of the Sea by Terry Breverton includes historical and fantastical information…
  • Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths by Susan Alleyn

  • KateTattersall.com is a website dedicated to a YA series about a Victorian girl spy. Author RS Flemming offers an mind-blowing range of information about the Victorian era and more. I returned to the site a number of times while writing my Gaslamp Fantasy.

Superhero | Comics

  • The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios. This cool resource is helpful for crafting villains and heroes that fly (rather than flop).

Favourites?

Maybe you have a favourite genre resource! If so, do tell! Please leave a comment.

 

Image Credits

Book Covers from GoodReads, Fair Use

Cuppa-Sunshine Photo Montage by Mystic Art Design, CC0, Public Domain

Ivanos Detective 05 by Stekelbes, CC By-NC-ND 2.0

Genre Exposé: Gaslamp Fantasy

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Steampunk everyone knows. But how about Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, and Clockpunk? Or Gaslamp? These are the specialist terms of the hard-core fantasy-fan. They are all sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which are sub-genres of Speculative Fiction.

I love Gaslamp because it combines Historical Fiction with fantastic possibilities. A librarian from the New York Public Library described Gaslamp as “Jane Austen or Charles Dickens meets Harry Potter.” I like that.

lamp-294127_1280Spotlight on Gaslight

When I describe my book The Temple of Lost Time as a Gaslamp fantasy adventure for middle-grade readers, lots of people reply, “I’ve never heard of Gaslamp fantasy.” Maybe not, but I bet you’ve read it! (Read on for a list of classic and popular titles.)

Gaslamp (or Gaslight) is a sub-genre of both fantasy and historical fiction. It is usually set in Regency, Victorian or Edwardian times, and it’s generally set in England or its (former) colonies. It refers to the gas lamps of the time, which cast a peculiar, eerie ambiance. The fascination with faeries and spiritualism in the Nineteenth Century informs the genre. Comic series creator Kaja Foglio coined the term Gaslamp to describe her Girl Genius series.

Gaslamp fiction is often mislabelled as Steampunk, which doesn’t work because the literature lacks a ‘punk’ tone, i.e., disaffected, brash, irreverent. [Some people are quick to point out that much of Steampunk itself isn’t exactly ‘punk’ either, but I’m not going anywhere near that debate!]

Gaslamp incorporates themes, subjects, and tropes that aren’t found in pure fantasy (Tolkien) and faerie (MacDonald). While Steampunk emphasises (mad) science, clockwork mechanics, and steam power, Gaslamp explores magical possibilities and delights in supernatural elements, time-slip, alternate histories, parallel dimensions, etc.

Gaslamp comes in many flavours from dark and broodingly Gothic to swashbuckling and adventuresome, from polite and romantic to sassy and theatrical. It can include romance, espionage, boarding schools, sleuthing, piracy, and more. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Popular Examples of Gaslamp Fantasy

Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed or plan to read:

From the Classics:

  • Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker

Recent Popular Gaslamp Titles:

  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • Drood by Dave Simmons
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • Kat Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Fancy A Gaslamp Sampler?

  • Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: a Gaslamp Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow et al

My Gaslamp Fantasy Series The Toby Fitzroy Chronicles

A little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones…

I can’t wait for the day when my middle grade novel, The Temple of Lost Time, is added to the list of popular Gaslamp titles above. I like to describe it as a little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones because it’s a swashbuckling, adventure-filled quest laced with magic and danger. Real places and factual personalities mix with imagined characters and fantastical beings. Myths and legends intersect history as my characters sail out of this world into another, a place called Achronos.

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At first, I thought I had written a Steampunk story thanks to one critical scene that involves a pretty cool steam-powered device. However, while editing my third draft, I sadly conceded one scene doesn’t make something Steampunk. Steampunk is a tone, a theme and a philosophy, all rolled into one.

I did some research and concluded that I had the makings of a Gaslamp fantasy. With that bit of understanding, my redrafting became more focused. I rewrote the whole thing with the conventions and aesthetic of Gaslamp uppermost in my mind. My opening scene now shimmers with weird and wonderful possibility. My earlier, rather watery denouement has transformed into something much richer and more fantastic.

Allohistory – When History Becomes a Playground

Like many Gaslamp tales, my story takes place in an alternative Nineteenth Century England. It’s 1853, but Queen Victoria is not on the throne. Instead, I went to the annals history to devise another monarch—one far less benevolent and mild than our Victoria.

Victoria became queen when her uncle, William IV, died without producing a legitimate heir. Uncle Will had nine illegitimate children to his long-standing mistress, stage actress Dorothea Jordan, but his poor wife, Queen Adelaide, was not so fortunate in the motherhood department. She birthed two daughters who died within weeks. Between these girls, there was a miscarriage, and subsequent to the second girl’s death, there were twin boys who were stillborn.

I gave lives to those boys, and named them Augustus and James. I imagined England under the rule of Augustus. With one wave of my writerly wand, a puff of smoke, and a Hey-Presto! the Victorian Era becomes the Augustan Age. Augustus inherits more than the throne, namely the physical feebleness and mental illness of his grandfather, Edward III. What’s more, I made him riddled with paranoia and positively obsessed with the magical possibilities of myths and legends. Old King Augy is not a popular guy. He’s unpredictable and tyrannical, and is hell-bent on cheating death. To do so, he is desperate to find and raid The Temple of Lost Time

That’s all I’ll say for now. Fingers crossed, a publisher will quickly pick up my book so you can find out the rest!

[P.S. I’d love to know what you think, so please leave me a comment!]

More on Genre and Gaslamp Fantasy…

Check out the following resources:

Over to You!

Are you a Gaslamp Fantasy writer or reader? Got a favourite? Share below!

Image Credits

Big Ben Sunset by Graham V Photo, CC BY-NC-ND, 2.0

Vectors are CC0, Public Domain

Australia’s Copyright Wrongs

 

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It’s a good idea for writers to emerge from the garret every so often and take a good hard look around. In Australia, it’s not just a good idea, it’s a survival strategy. At the moment, our government is tinkering with copyright laws and importation rules. What’s at stake is the future of publishing in this country, the opportunities for emerging Australian literary talent, and the Australian identity itself.

In a nutshell, the Productivity Commission seeks to rejiggy three things:

  1. Shortening the term of copyright.
  2. Jettisoning “fair dealing” and adapting “fair use” instead.
  3. Abandoning parallel importation rules, and allowing bulk buying of materials published elsewhere.

This trifecta is ill-conceived and deadly. If it’s not stopped, the effects could drastically diminish the earnings of Australian writers, reduce the opportunities for young and new writers, and undermine the publishing industry. If you don’t believe me (and why should you without checking), visit the website of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA), a peak organisation that represents authors and publishers, to see what they say.

Australian Identity at Stake

It doesn’t stop with financial hardship for creators. By disregarding (not protecting) Australian literature and publishing, the Australian identity takes another blow. Instead of reading books that project the unique and precious Aussie voice and spirit, our citizens—young and old—will have to ingest still more American culture.

I say this as a dual-national with no disrespect intended to my American readers. Every American book, TV show, song, clip, and movie chips away at the very things that make Australia special. As water carves stone, this cultural tide slowly wears away our Aussiness.

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A cute quokka from Rottnest Island, WA.

It’s important for our children to read Aussie books about the history of our Aboriginal ancestors of 20,000 years ago. Our kids should delight in stories about brolgas and spotted quolls, pademelons and quokkas. These creatures are (sadly) unlikely to make their way into American picture books. Australian school kids need stories about the tuckshop queue not the cafeteria line. Ya know?

When I arrived in Australia nearly three decades ago, I met Aussies with accents so broad I needed an interpreter. People said delightful things like “crikey” and “dunny” and “dinky di”. My husband introduced me as his “cheese and kisses” (missus).  Colourful Aussie-isms seasoned people’s everyday speech. These days, lots of Aussies (especially city folks) cringe at these sayings, and I think that’s a pity. Sadly, Steve Irwin, bless him, was the last bastion of ‘Strine.

But I digress…

Time to Use Your Words

To my Aussie writer-friends and their friends, family, and partners, I urge you to use your words at this time. Write to your member of Parliament and tell him or her the Productivity Commission’s proposal will have a seriously negative effect on writers’ livelihoods and the Australian identity.

I’m sharing (below) the letter I wrote to my MP. Please feel free to copy it to send to your member (after you’ve satisfied yourself that I’ve got my facts right). If you don’t like my letter, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has another.

Click this link and this one to find out other ways you can use your voice to make your opinion known.

And please share this post and other articles (like this one by Thomas Keneally) in your social media. Those who truly love us will forgive us for a few weeks of spam about the UnProductivity Committee’s unfair and ill-conceived proposal.

My Letter:

Dear [Your MP] (You can find your electorate here and your MP here),

I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes to copyright laws in Australia. As an author of children’s literature, a freelance writer, and an active member of the writing profession and community, I fear that the proposed changes will seriously reduce opportunities for new Australian talent to emerge and drastically affect my ability to earn a living from my writing now and later in life.

The Productivity Committee’s proposes to change the current copyright laws from 70 years after the death of the creator to 15-25 years after the creation of a work. The creation of a book can require years. This investment in a work is done with the hope that it will generate income for decades to come. Narrowing the earning window would reduce authors’ earnings now and deprive them of a livelihood in their latter years.

To put this in perspective, Jackie French, the 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Literature Laureate, wrote Diary of a Wombat fifteen years ago. The proposed changes mean that she will stop receiving exclusive earnings on her work. Someone else—someone who didn’t imagine the story, who didn’t toil over the words for months, who didn’t invest time and money into honing the craft and creating the opportunity—will earn from her creation. This is decidedly wrong. Clearly, she and her family alone deserve to earn from it for the term of her life and beyond.

Writers, like all Australians, have the right to establish a secure financial future for themselves and their families by retaining ownership of the intellectual property they have created. As it is with bricks and mortar, so it must be with the intellectual property of authors and other creatives. We don’t pour our lifeblood into building a house or business, only to give up ownership of it after a decade and a half. Imagine squatters moving in on the fifteenth anniversary of a home. This is what the Productivity Commission’s proposal amounts to for authors.

Similarly, the notion of “fair use” is categorically unfair. If the Productivity Commission’s changes are taken up, Australian authors’ income will suffer dramatically. When similar rules were changed in Canada, the cost to writers and the publishing industry was calculated to be in the area of $30 million since 2012.

Australian law sets out a series of clear exceptions to copyright restrictions known as “fair dealing“, as I’m sure you’re aware. What we have now is fair, a small fee paid to publishers and authors to allow for copying sections of their work without seeking permission. These payments, though small, mean so much to Australian authors, whose incomes average about $13,000 per year.

And finally, a change to parallel importation rules is unnecessary and unhelpful. If the current rules are abandoned, booksellers will be able to buy bulk from anywhere in the world, which will undermine the Australian publishing industry, as it has in New Zealand. Cheap imports are likely to contain American spelling, grammar and content, thrusting the Australian voice and culture still further into the background.

The Australian book industry is flourishing, producing 7000 new books a year and generating around $2 billion in revenue. This productivity is the result of the current rules, which help publishers manage risk and support the discovery of new Australian stories and talent.

Further information from reliable sources about how these changes would affect Australia’s books and authors can be found on the following links:

I urge you to reject the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes to copyright law. By doing so, you will be supporting our Australian writers and publishers, who through their craft shape, promote, and preserve Australian identity and culture.

Kind regards,

{You}

In the Interest of Balance…

…I include this link to the argument in favour of the Productivity Commission’s proposals. Read it, by all means, noting that they are keen to generate American-style competition here in Australia, a country with a market that is a fraction of the size of the US’s. It didn’t happen in New Zealand or Canada. Just sayin’…

Image Credit

Graveyard by Anne Austin, CC BY-ND 2.0

 

Three Things Dickens Taught Me

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It took over a month, but I finished listening to the audio version of Dickens’s David Copperfield. It now sits at the top of my list of all-time favourite books. As much as I enjoyed the reading experience, I also got a lot out of it as a writer. Yes, it’s long and dense and would probably be rejected by today’s publishing professionals. But there’s still lots to learn from this master of the English literature canon.

Here are three things I gleaned from Charles Dickens.

1) Readers will forgive almost anything if you tell a good story.

David Copperfield opens with this sentence:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Sentence two:

“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.”

In most cases, when a book starts at the moment of the protagonist’s birth, it’s a bad sign. A very bad sign. When I read the above sentences, I laughed. Aren’t writers supposed to start in media res?

When I stopped chuckling, I checked the length of my audio recording. Thirty-six and a half hours. Flip! Turns out the physical book has 800+ pages!

Lucky for me, I listened to Audible’s wonderful audio version performed by Richard Armitage of Thorin Oakenshield fame (The Hobbit, the films). Highly recommended. I can’t gush fast enough to convey how much I enjoyed his performance!

I loved every minute. So what if Dickens is long-winded? Who cares if he starts where no one (today) would dare start a story? He’s Dickens, and he did it well. Besides, there were legitimate plot reasons for starting at day dot.

The plotting in David Copperfield is heaps of fun. There were a few times when I yelled, “Get.Out!” and “NO! Not her again!” and “Yes!!” with an air punch. Admittedly, by the end I began to see the pattern of Dickens’s braided threads, but the payoffs were so rewarding that I didn’t mind that I could guess what happened next.

2. Tell the truth about the lies people tell themselves.

I can relate his 19th Century characters to my 21st Century friends. Seriously, those Micawbers—ever waiting for “something to turn up.” The pair of them reminded me of a couple I know. How did Dickens manage such timelessness? By slicing the human psyche into parts–the portrayed self and the true self. He observed that we all tell ourselves lies, and that sometimes we have no idea we’ve dabbled in falsehood and hoodwinked no one but ourselves.

He nailed the fact that everyone, even beloved David, is flawed and many-faceted. As a child, David was too trusting. As a young man, he was too enchanted by superficial beauty, yet he (eventually) grew into a principled, loyal man. Watching David come of age was a wonder, the nuances of every stage captured in tiny brushstrokes. I especially loved David’s late adolescence, when he felt awkward in his inexperience and youth. David burned with the shame at having no whiskers to shave off and with humiliation for paying for top-shelf brandy but being served the dregs.

Even the quintessential villain, Uriah Heep, is not pure evil. As villains go, he’s pretty darn bad, but he wuvs his mummy and looks after her as a good son should.

Dickens revelled in reminding his readers that there’s always more than meets the eye with humans. We behave in ways that belie our good intentions. We say one thing and do another. Or we think we have pegged someone’s character, only to find we’ve misjudged them most unfairly.

Take Betsy Trotwood, David’s kooky aunt, who is cantankerous to the point of rudeness, but she brims over with genuine compassion, quiet wisdom, and snarky wit. She surprised me right through the book.

3. Make your characters suffer—really suffer.

It’s easy to fall in love with Dickens’s books because he forces us to care about his characters. Then he toys with his readers’ emotions by tormenting the characters he’s made us love. He no sooner gives one a lollipop than he rips it away, throws it in the dust, and stomps it to smithereens. Except it isn’t a lollipop; it’s a deepest desire, an object of dire necessity. All good writers do this, but Dickens is the Maestro of pathos and comeuppance. He makes the reading experience like a radical roller coaster ride.

Dickensian Caveats

My biggest concern about reading Dickens is that the flowery style might be communicable. I know that I have a tendency to  absorb the rhythm and style of what I read. I remember years ago after studying the King James version of the New Testament, the letters I wrote to my parents came out with a biblical cadence. It was scary. While I want to acquire the ^above^ lessons, I don’t want my writing to break out in a hideous purple rash.

So I’m thinking it might be a good idea to follow up David Copperfield with some sparse literature. Hemingway, maybe. Got any recommendations? Leave a prescription in the comments!

 

 

Chapter One Checklist

checklist-1266989_640Talk about a tough gig. The first chapter has to grab your reader by the ears and hold them down while proving that you the author are trustworthy and can pull off a story.

When I’m reading, I usually know by the end of the first paragraph if I’m interested in continuing. By the bottom of the page, I have made my decision. Sloppy or amateurish writing, stale characters, and tired turns of phrase shut me down. If I don’t sense the author’s credibility immediately, I’m out of there—and on to something else. I want to read someone I can learn from!

That’s just me, a steady reader. Imagine an agent or editor who could (and probably does) receive over a hundred submissions a day. All the more important to make the first page and chapter sing.

Consider, too, the shopping habits of modern readers. Online bookstores offer samples, so it’s easier than ever for readers to try before they buy. What samples do they read? Page 1 and maybe chapter 1.

All of this means nailing the first chapter is critical. Of course, we owe it to our readers to maintain a high level of execution throughout the story, but there’s no point even talking about the middle and the end if we can’t convince someone to turn past page one of the beginning.

Chapter One Checklist

I have spent the past few months writing and rewriting and re-rewriting Act One of my Toby Fitzroy manuscript. If you think I’m exaggerating, ask my long-suffering crit buddies, many of whom have read umpteen attempts and for some reason still like me (at least I hope they do).

In my determination to nail my first page and chapter, I did some research, looked to the masters, and created a Chapter One Checklist, which I’ll share here.

Is the first line/s intriguing? (Got a hook?)checklist-41335_640

My last post dealt with great opening lines, so I won’t say much here.

Is the protagonist worthy of our care?

The reader has to see something familiar in the character to relate to. The word “relatable” makes my eyeteeth ache, but there it is. Make your character that—the R-word. Not too perfect. Not too pretty. Not unrealistically average-in-every-way, either. We don’t want a creepy Mary Poppins or a holey stick figure. What readers want is somebody we would gladly share a beer/coffee/midnight-munchies with.

You heard it here first.

Is the setting established? Place and Time?

It’s infuriating reading a book and not being able to work out when or where it’s happening. There’s the idea of “Anytown,” which has its purposes, but without surroundings and context, it’s hard for the reader to get traction with the story. Might as well give your characters a harp, plonk them on a cloud, and send them forth unto Glory.

Does something happen?

If chapter one is all backstory, better call Houston. Action—not fluff, not navel-gazing, soul-searching or existential angst. It’s all about things that happen.

*And by the way, (Hubby, I’m looking at you!) events other than car chases and explosions count as action. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who rolled out bed only to find he’d turned into a huge bug (Metamorphosis).  MT Andersen’s Feed starts like this: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

See? No car chases, explosions, or shoot-outs, but both openers set up some awesome action.

Has the conflict been ignited?

No conflict, no story. ‘Nuff said.

Are the stakes revealed?

accept-47587_640What will happen if the character doesn’t get what she wants? This is the very thing that will decide if your reader yawns or reads on. If it doesn’t matter to your character, it doesn’t matter to your reader.

Are the protagonist’s desires clear?

When the desires are clear, the reader can root for the protagonist—and keep reading to find out how it all pans out. Otherwise, the reader just skims along … La-dee-da … Oh gee! Time to pluck my brows and file my taxes … and get a root canal. (Bye-bye reader … )

Has the antagonist been introduced?

It’s no good making your reader wonder who (or what) is behind the bad stuff. Well, if it’s masterfully done, it can work, but don’t be too vague or the reader will wonder if the writer knows what the heck she’s doing.

Is the tone set?

I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been totally sucked into a book by a snarky voice alone. Tone doesn’t have to be snarky to be compelling; it just has to be distinct (and interesting. And not annoying.) Voice isn’t tone, but it sure is part of it. (Anyway, who knows what voice is.)

Is the theme touched upon?

Theme gives the story integrity and oomph. It’s the thing that makes readers sigh with pleasure when they’ve turned the last page, which means it develops across the book. Treat theme like perfume. It should be subtle, especially early in the book. Too heavy-handed, and it comes across as preachy and overpowering. It’s just gross.

Is there a clear wink to the genre?

Writers had better dish up what their readers are expecting. If mystery is on the menu, a body better be on the chapter one buffet. Whatever the genre, hint at those cues and conventions early. If a dragon suddenly turns up in chapter three of what was supposedly a hard-boiled mystery, your reader will have to reorient. And every time they scratch their head, their opinion of the writer’s credibility drops by 37.8 points. Three strikes and guess what?

Template Available!

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 12.29.35 amI’ve done up the above checklist in a handy table (left). Send me an email if you’d like a digital copy of my Chapter One Checklist. It’s free; no weird strings attached, no email spam from me. There’s a contact form in the About Ali tab on the menu.

 

 

 

 

 

All images are CC.0, Public Domain.

 

Kidlit’s Magical Opening Lines

"All children, except one, grow up."

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Every writer knows the importance of the first line of a book. A good one is an invitation, a party, and a present all rolled into one.  Here are a few well-known openings to savour from children’s literature…

  • “All children, except one, grow up.” —JM Barrie, Peter Pan
  • “’Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” —EB White, Charlotte’s Web
  • “There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —CS Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • “Mr and Mrs Dursley were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” —JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

DHinsonDirect from the Writer’s Desk…

As I write this, I’m wading knee-deep in wadded up attempts at a stellar opening line. I’ve been toiling over a rewrite of Act One of my manuscript for over a month. I’ve churned out a dozen half-decent ones, but so far they lack that essential je ne sais quoi that makes them ring with elegance and charm.

Such as Sir Terry Pratchett’s opener for Johnny and the Dead:

“Johnny never knew for certain why he started seeing the dead.”

Or Lemony Snicket’s snarky intro to A Series of Unfortunate Events:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

Or my personal favourite from Dodie Smith in I Capture the Castle:

“I write this sitting in the sink.”

I haven’t read Eva Ibbotson’s The Island of Aunts, but I’ll tell you what, I’m going to hunt it down:

“Kidnapping children is never a good idea; all the same, sometimes it has to be done.”

Freaking brilliant! Gotta get me that book—fast!

Another to track down is The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by an author with the enigmatic name Avi.

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.”

*Gasp! Swoon! Sigh…* No wonder it won the Newbery Medal. (Avi, it turns out, is  the pen name of an Englishman with the decidedly non-enigmatic name of Edward Irving Wortis, which is decidedly reminiscent of Eustace Clarence Scrubb. ‘Avi’ clearly didn’t deserve it…)

WriterJMMasWhat Sorcery Is This?

What is it that makes these opening lines so compelling, so downright irresistible? The magic lies in a carefully poured potion of quirkiness, curiosity arousal, and captivating voice. The really good ones double as  signposts to genre and a compelling introduction to a key character.

To pack all of that into one line is a superhuman feat. Elegance only looks simple; it is always hard-wrought. Unless you’re Audrey Hepburn.

Looks like it’s back to the drawing board I go. Hi-ho, hi-ho…

Share the Love!

Do you have a favourite kidlit opening line? Share it in the comments. I appreciate all the inspiration I can get!

 

Image Credits

Peter Pan, Public Domain

The world will never know by Dillon Hinson, CC BY-NC-ND 2,0

writer by Joan M Mas, CC BY-NC 2.0