I’ve been following agent Mary Kole’s blog, Kidlit. Her focus is on children’s literature and at Kidlit, she offers tips, insight and even contests related to the craft of writing for children and young adults. Recently she had a contest of first pages of yet-to-be-pitched-or-accepted YA novels. She’s been posting her top picks this past week. All of her selections were intriguing and I found myself wondering what happened in the stories after the first pages. I made a mental note to put the books on hold at the library. And then I remembered they were not yet accepted or published books. Oh well.
Mary had some helpful tips to share at the end of the week about what makes a successful beginning. Her perspective made me realize that it’s critical to get the beginning right or an agent won’t look beyond it to the rest of your book:
I do not have time to stick with a book whose flawed beginning may someday yield “the really good stuff that comes near the middle.” I’d like to have unending faith in everything that comes across my desk — that the writing will get better, that the voice will become more natural, that it will find a plot — but I just can’t.
Her remarks are similar to what I heard Bob Mayer say in his workshop about plot this week, only his perspective was from that of a reader. He mentioned that readers glance at the first pages (and some might glance at the last few pages) and based on what they read, they decide to buy or not buy a book. If a reader likes a book, she doesn’t stand in a bookstore and read it — she buys it. And if she doesn’t like it, she leaves it behind.
Ah, yes, beginnings matter.
So, how do we make sure our beginnings hit the ball out of the park? According to what I picked up in Bob’s workshop, I’d say that the initiating event is key. If it’s too early in the story and too much has to pass before you get to the action, you’ll lose the reader. If you start too far in and then have to provide tons of back story, well, that doesn’t work either. If as Bob (and Aristotle) say, plot is a character trying to solve a problem, then the important thing is making that character and her problem really interesting.
For me, this adds a lot of pressure right up front. It can almost stop me from writing…this fear that I’m not starting it the “right” way. I need to get over that, though, because I can always re-write the beginning. In fact, it’s likely that will happen after more elements in a story or a character reveal themselves.
So, what am I waiting for? It’s time to get busy!