Four Things Your Opening Scene Has to Do

Last week, I read an excellent post by Jane Friedman, 5 Common Story Openings to Avoid.  As a new writer, I attempted two of them and I’ve seen at least two more when reading contest entries. Her list of bad beginnings includes opening with the character getting out of bed, with the character sitting and thinking, as the character travels, with the character dreaming, or with the character in the midst of a crisis.

As you work to create your opening scene, keep in mind the four things that this scene needs to do.

Introduce your character.  Before we can care, when need to get to know this character.  What do they love? What kind of person are they?  How do they interact with other people?  Show us what matters before you shake things up.

Introduce your setting.  If you are writing fantasy or science fiction, you aren’t going to have time to do all of your world building in the opening scene, but set the scene.  Are we in a lunar station?  On a world full of dragons?  In a dark, dusty mansion?

Create a contract with your reader.  In the opening scene, you tell your reader what type of story this is going to be.  A humorous scene promises humor throughout.  A world of dragons creates an expectation for magic.

Hook your readers.  Last but not least, the opening scene has got to hook your reader.  Do this by getting their attention and making them want to find out what is happening in this story.

It may sound like a lot to get done in rather short order, and it is.  But it is essential in order to keep the reader reading.  It will probably take you several tries to get it write . . . I mean right.



2 Reasons Readers Will Love Your Active Protagonist

Lately as I’ve added to the word count on my cozy, I’ve discovered that I am less and less happy with my main character.  She just seems so pedestrian.  She has to investigate the murder – that’s the point of the whole book after all.  But all she’s doing is wandering around talking to people.  Over and over again, she asks them about their various encounters with the victim.  Asking questions may be a great way to find things out but I’ve been fairly uncertain that it is a great way to captivate readers.

Then I read Nathan Bransford’s post, Why Protagonists Need to Be Active.  In his post, Bransford points out that readers fall for characters who are fighting to get what they want.  If, on the other hand, a secondary character is working to solve the problem it might feel more like their story.  I’m safe here.  My secondary characters seem to be equally willing to sit around and drink coffee and talk.

So I’ve been noodling over Bransford’s advice and I’ve come up with 3 Reasons that Readers will be drawn to an active protagonist.

A Reason to Cheer.  When readers see a character struggling, they want that character to win.  They want to cheer her on.  “Come on, Clara!  You’ve got it.” But that implies that she is, in fact, struggling vs languishing.  I’m going to have to work on this.  Part of the problem is that I mull things over.  I contemplate.  Then I find a hapless . . . I mean a willing accomplice to carry out the more physical aspects of whatever.  That’s how I was as a kid.  That’s how I am as an adult. Clara is going to have to get active.

A Reason to Laugh.  So much of the humor in cozy myteries comes from getting caught . . . snooping, squabling, or climbing through windows.  At this point, Clara is not snooping around like the Scooby Gang.  She isn’t concocting complex traps.  That is going to have to change.

Obviously, I have a lot of work ahead of me on this particular project.  But isn’t that what rewrites are for?


Three Reasons Not to Tweet about Your Manuscript

Recently agent Janet Reid posted about whether or not you should tweet about your manuscript?  A reader wanted to know if this was a good way to create agent/editor interest in their work.  In short, Reid told her NO.  It is not a good idea.  Here is why?

Not where agents go to find manuscripts.  As Reid explained, in general Twitter is not where agents go to find manuscript to represent.  They read queries.  Some agents will take part in #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) or #PitchMad, searching on those hashtags when the time is write.  Unless you are taking part in one of these events on-line, you would be better off contacting agents directly.  Send a query letter.

Most Tweets have a short shelf life.  Twitter is all about connecting and conversation.  Something I read today said that the average tweet has a lifespan of 18 minutes.  Send a Tweet out into the atmosphere and your followers may or may not see it.  Someone may search on the hashtag and see it.  But the chances of this happening are relatively small.  If you want an agent to express interest in your manuscript . . . as Reid said, send a query.

Sell then Tweet.  As Reid explained, a much better time to stir up public nterest in your work is when it is about to be published.  A media campaign directed at getting people to pre-order might include tweets.

The best way to generate interest on Twitter is to be an active part of a community.  Tweet about other people’s work and tag them in the tweet.  Retweet things that other people have posted.  Comment when a lively discussion is going on.

To generate agent interest, first you need to write something and rewrite it until it shines.  Then query.  Yes, you will probably still have to query.


ALA Awards Announced

Monday morning, while I was in yoga, the American Library Association announced the 2020 youth media award winners.  Look out – this is quite a list but oh so many great books!  I am going to give you the names of the winners.  For the honors books, see the complete ALA listing.

Newbery winner: New Kid by Jerry CraftI have to say that I loved this graphic novel.  Loved.  It.  Laugh-out-loud funny but also packs a punch.

Caldecott winner: The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, written by Kwame Alexander.

Coretta Scott King Book Award winner (recognizes African-American authors and illustrators) for author: New Kid by Jerry Craft.

Coretta Scott King Book Award for illustrator: The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, written by Kwame Alexander.  Obviously, I need to request this book from the library!

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award: Genesis Begins Again, written by Alicia D. Williams.

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award: What Is Given from the Heart, illustrated by April Harrison, written by Patricia C. McKissack. Pat taught the only class I took on writing fiction, a continuing education class on writing for children.  She was so inspirations and encouraging.

Michael L. Printz Award (for young adult books) winner: Dig written by A.S. King.

Schneider Family Book Award (for books that express the disability experience) winner for young children’s books: Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael López.

Schneider Family award for middle grade: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly.

Schneider Family award for young adults: Cursed by Karol Ruth Silverstein.

Children’s Literature Legacy Award winner:  Kevin Henkes.  Have loved his work for years!

Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults winner: Steve Sheinkin.  Highly inspirational.  If you write nonfiction for teens, read his books. 

Odyssey Award for best audiobook winner: Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction produced by Scholastic Audiobooks.  Book written by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. I haven’t heard the audiobook but loved the graphic  novel. And I’m breaking my own pattern here but one of the honor books was written by a friend, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga produced by Live Oak Media, written by Traci Sorell.

Pura Belpré Awards honoring a Latino writer and illustrator winner for illustration: Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln illustrated by Rafael López. Written by Margarita Engle.  My library is going to be so busy! 

Pura Belpré Awards honoring a Latino writer and illustrator winner for text: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe written by Carlos Hernandez.

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award winner: Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. The library book is sitting on my desk! 

Stonewall Book Award for literature relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience winner: When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff.

Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for beginning reader winner: Stop! Bot! by James Yang.

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults winner: Free Lunch by Rex Ogle.

Asian/Pacific American Award picture book winner: Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson, illustrated by Rebecca Huang. Awesome STEM title! 

Asian/Pacific American Award middle grade winner: Stargazing by Jen Wang.

Asian/Pacific American Award young adult winner:  They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, illustrated by Harmony Becker.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award winner for portraying the Jewish experience picture book winner: The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come by Sue Macy, illustrated by Stacy Innerst.

The Sydney Taylor middle grade winner: White Bird: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio.

The Sydney Taylor young adult winner: Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin.

The American Indian Youth Literature award Picture Book winner: Bowwow Powwow: Bagosenjige-niimi’idim by Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Ojibwe).

The American Indian Youth Literature Middle Grade Book winner: Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis (Umpqua/Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde) with Traci Sorell (Cherokee).  So excited to see another win for my friend Traci! 

The American Indian Youth Literature young adult winner: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee).  So glad the library’s order has arrived!

What an amazing and awe-inspiring list of books.  Take the time to request five or ten from your local library!


Author Copies: American Crime!

I have a friend who loves true crime stories.  In fact, she loves them so much that she is writing a podcast all about various crimes.

When I took the assignment to write about the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, I didn’t think of it as writing about crime.  I grew up hearing about the assassination.  My dad worked in television news and was at work when JFK was shot.  This was a legend that I had grown up with. Imagine my surprise when I got into it and realized that not everyone thought Oswell was guilty.

Still it was obvious how it fit into the series American Crime Stories.  I had to detail the investigation and the hunt for Oswell.  I dealt with timelines and chains of evidence.  There was almost too much information to sort through.

The Murders of Tupac and Biggie is in the same series.  It was another matter altogether.  Both men were gunned down in the street though not at the same time.  And while there were dozens upon dozens of stories about either or both of them, there was much less information.  Technically the investigations are ongoing so the police have kept a lot of information secret.

I’ll have to ask my friend what true crime podcasts she enjoys.  I enjoyed piecing together evidence, witness testimonies and timelines.  And, something just hit me.

That is how I need to be approaching my mystery.  I’m slogging through the muddled middle.  I need to pen a time line.  I need to lay out suspects and clues much as I did in these books.  The plot will come together when I master these tasks.  And wouldn’t it have been nice to figure that out a wee bit earlier?

Instead I focused on character and plot.  Which will probably go a long way to making the rest of it work.  No one ever said that writing was easy!



Where to Start Your Story

Last week, I felt like I was wallowing around in my mystery.  My character has no clue how to investigate a murder.  She’s just stumbling along, gathering information.  Because of this, it feels like the middle just goes on and on and, dare I say it again, on.

Maybe that’s why this piece of advice from Peter Derk caught my attention.  In his LitReactor post, Start as Close to the End as Possible, his recommendation is to start writing the story again.  And this time?  I bet you can guess what he said.  Start as close to the end as possible.

This means that you cut as much exposition as possible.  World building?  Keep it simple.  If you are writing a fantasy and using a fantasy trope, you don’t have to spend paragraphs on your elegant elves and grubby dwarves. Spend your time on what is unique to your world not what is typical to fantasy.

I don’t have tropes like this to depend on but I do spend time describing my setting.  I’ll need to make sure that is mixed into the activity and not just a page of scene setting.

One thing that I found especially interesting was his reference to Breaking Bad.  When the series starts, the main character has less than a year to live.  That’s a built in ending.  A ticking clock.  It helps limit pointless meandering (ahem) and also increases the tension.

This is the same sort of tension Suzanne Collins created with The Hunger Games.  Katniss is chosen for the games.  By the end, she will kill or be killed unless she creates a new ending.

I’m not sure how I’m going to put this to work in my own story.  My main character isn’t terminally ill.  But she’s just left her husband.  Maybe she’s running out of money.  She wants to help but she has to solve this thing fast because she needs to find a job.  Note to self . . .



Proposed Missouri Law May Mean Book Banning

I’m not going to lie.  I was jazzed when I saw a headline about Missouri in the Library Journal roundup.  Then I saw what it was about. “MO Bill Proposes Parental Review Board for ‘Age-Inappropriate’ Material, Legal Penalties for Noncompliance.”

Sigh.  Really?

When the General Assembly convened, Ben Baker, a Republic representative from Neosho, Missouri proposed a bill.  The point of this bill is to establish a 5 person parental advisory board for each library.  These boards will hold public hearings to determine if specific materials are sexually age-inappropriate.  What does this include?

From the bill itself this includes “any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” This would include material that “appeals to the prurient interest of minors” and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

The panel will then tell the library to remove said materials.  What happens if a librarian ignores them?

  • A fine up to $500.
  • Up to 1 year in jail.
  • The library will lose all state funding.

What about library staff?  Or a library board of trustees?  They have no say according to this bill.

At this point, the bill has not been assigned to a committee so it may not go anywhere.  But when Baker was asked about this he said that he didn’t want to ban books.  In an interview with KOAM News, Baker said, “The main thing is, I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they’re in a safe environment, and that they’re not going to be exposed to something that is objectionable material.” He added, “Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that’s a problem.”

What is this?  Drag queen story hour.  So according to Baker, draq queens are objectionable  material.  Dehumanize anyone lately, Baker?

In another interview, this one with the Kansas City Star, he admits that the wording of the bill “needs work.”

But that’s okay.  The Missouri Library Association is preparing talking points. Their members are contacting state legislators to express their disgust with this bill.  And I bet they’ve worded it all to say what they mean.

If you want to read the whole story, click here.  There is also a link to a letter you can send to Baker.  So far he’s received just over 6,500 e-mails.



SCBWI Grant: The Ann Whitford Paul—Writer’s Digest Manuscript Award

Early in my career, I used to apply for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) grants. But I have to admit that I haven’t applied for a grant or mentorship in quite some time.  It isn’t that I think I know all there is to know, but I do feel that I’ve already benefitted from my work through the organization.  Still, I’m tempted by the The Ann Whitford Paul—Writer’s Digest Manuscript Award.

This award is given annually to a Most Promising Picture Book manuscript. To have your work considered:

  • You must be an SCBWI member.
  • The manuscript must be under 1000 words.
  • The manuscript cannot be under contract.
  • You must not have sold a picture book manuscript in the last three years.

I’m a little surprised that the manuscript must be submitted by snail mail.  So be sure to keep that in mind if you’d like to submit.  Give yourself enough time to get your manuscript to the post office.

The work will be judged anonymously so you have to reformat your manuscript removing contact information from the first page, your byline and your name in the header.  A cover sheet containing contact information and the title of the manuscript enables SCBWI to contact the winners.

If this sounds like something you would like to enter, submissions are open from February 1, 2020 through April 1, 2020. To find out where to send your work and to review the rules, click through here.  You can also read Ann Whitford Paul’s summaries of last years selections (1 winner and 2 honorable mentions) here.

The winner of the grant will be announced mid-May.  Still not sure this is worth your while?  The winner will receive  $1000.


Concentration: How to Get It Back

I’m not sure how it happened.  I must have said yes not once but several times.

But as I’m trying to work, various notes pop up at the bottom of my monitor. There are news headlines for things that I seldom actually consider newsworthy.  And there are crafting patterns.  I knit, crochet, and weave but I honestly find enough patterns without images popping up as I attempt to write.

These things are hell on my concentration.

I just read a post from author Nathan Bransford about trying to focus.  He found that he was having a hard time coming up with writing ideas.  He couldn’t concentrate when it came time to sit down and write.  Reading even a news article was impossible.  Before he reached the end of the piece, he’d find himself clicking to check something else.

If focus is an issue for you, whether you are trying to read or write, Bransford has several recommendations.  Turn of the notifications on your phone and your computer.  Every now and then, it might truly be beneficial to know the moment a message arrives.  But look at what you get over the course of a day and you’ll realize that most of it could wait.

It may take you only a moment to check and see what that alert is for but it has still broken your concentration.  Four times a week at a minimum I completely shut off my phone — during yoga on Monday and Wednesday mornings, during choir practice on Thursday and during Sunday church service.  Honestly, these are four of my favorite times throughout the week and I don’t think it is a coincidence.

Even if you aren’t willing to do away with them completely, turn off notifications when you work.  I think you’ll be surprised just how much more productive you are.  Me?  I’m going to turn some of them off completely.  I don’t need to know the moment that yarn sale e-mail pops into my in-box.


Ten Most Checked Out Books

In celebration of its 125th anniversary, the New York Public Library ran the numbers to see which 10 books have been checked out the most.  I have to admit that there were a few surprises.

The top 10 books along with their circulation numbers are:

  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: 485,583 checkouts
  • The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss: 469,650 checkouts
  • 1984 by George Orwell: 441,770 checkouts
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 436,016 checkouts
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 422,912 checkouts
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: 337,948 checkouts
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 316,404 checkouts
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: 284,524 checkouts
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: 231,022 checkouts
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle: 189,550 checkouts

I’m really glad that there are so  many books for young readers.  I expected there to be a Dr. Seuss book but why couldn’t it have been one of my favorites?  As a child, my favorite was One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, quite possibly because it was the only Dr. Seuss book we owned.  My mother loathed Dr. Seuss.  As a teen and even today, my favorite is The Lorax.

I’m a little disappointed Twain didn’t make it.  But my dad was a Twain fan so I grew up on Twain.  My favorite?  Connecticut Yankee.

I’ve read eight of the ten books.  Although I’ve read bits and pieces of both Fahrenheit 451 and How to Win Friends and Influence People, I’ve never read either book in their entirety.  I’m going to do something about that.

But I have read 1984 several times.  I read it in 9th grade when I was reading all kinds of post-apocalyptic fiction including 1984 and Brave New World.  Then lit teachers started assigning 1984.  

So now manyof these books have you read?  If you want to read more about the study and the results, there is an article here on NPR.