“Follow my heart,” an editor said, not knowing how wild my imagination is. She never saw the critical comments that led to my latest rewrite. I don’t trust my heart anymore, so I’m asking my blog readers’ opinions. It seems young teens prefer action first. At least the majority of the 7th grade class I visited last year said so. But parents buy the books for most twelve to fourteen-year-old teens. Please take the time to tell me how you would begin my book, an upper middle grade fantasy.
It’s more than the dilemma of whether to start with action or characterization that’s driving me crazy. Once I got those critiques mentioned above, it was obvious the tone of the Earth chapters differed too much from those on the other planet where my character travels in chapter 5. How do I marry the serious stuff with the more lighthearted world where a turkey-size bluebird named Bea Beaking sings the blues and a gummy bear becomes a Cub Scout? I decided I needed to change my readers expectations from the outset. Now my book starts with three paragraphs of my character talking from a point later in the book:
1. In Media Res:
If I’m the first person ever to die from man-eating sweets, I’ll have my mom to thank. She’s the one who gave me the Talents that got me in this mess. On the Monday before spring break, my pointy ears, just like hers, heard something no one else did. Being a hero sounded cool at the age of fourteen—until another Talent I got from Mom sent me to a place where ordinary sugar could be turned into a lethal trap. It’s no comfort that I might have created the trap. I wish I’d never found this strange land where sweets aren’t the only thing to die for—where other evil things crave human flesh.
I can’t go home unless I finish my mission, but I hope to live long enough to teach Earthspeak to others. Then if I fail, someone else can take over my job. See, as my three older brothers and I grew up, Mom taught us all to speak in rhyme. But she became obsessed with verse after my oldest brother Brand died almost two years ago, as if she thought her poems could bring him back. He didn’t come back, but I wonder if she knows the real power of words. I’m sure my brothers don’t know, and I can’t tell them from here. So I hope you to keep reading long enough to learn Earthspeak because I need your help. Just be careful what you say because your words really might come back to bite you in the end.
This is a revision of a shorter opening that got complaints from people who want to see the man-eating sweets right away, and the next 4 chapters happen on Earth with only a few brief glimpses into the other place. But how else do I prevent shock when readers land in something more like James and the Giant Peach than Harry Potter? The Earth chapters deal with bullies, loss of a brother, a mother obsessed with rhyme, and a mental takeover. These things cause my main character to do the things he does, including traveling elsewhere, and they all affect the plot to the extent I can’t skip any. So I added the second and third paragraph to focus the interest more on what happens next. But I’m worried that I revealed too much, taking away the mystery.
So, would you keep the In Media Res opening as is, or leave out certain elements (please say which ones), or not at all? If not at all, do you like to get to know the character before something bad happens in order to care about him, or do you want something to happen first and get to know him afterward? A couple months ago, the following paragraph was my book opening. It’s still my second favorite.
2. Original opening, action first: Light flashed down onto the snowy canyon trail, shining straight through my glasses into my brain. Looking up, I pinpointed the source before it disappeared from between two boulders far up the southern mountainside. The urge to investigate—alone—was so strong I couldn’t resist turning uphill, away from the other Boy Scouts hiking down towards the trailhead.
With very little conversation with his best friend, my character goes uphill and finds something that changes his life. He has a lot of problems which, along with the thing he finds, lead to his traveling to another planet in the 5th chapter. But other critiques said they didn’t care what happened to my character unless they got to know him first. Those led to this opening.
3. Characterization first:
Saturday, one week before spring break, my best friend Loa and I were following the other Boy Scouts in our troop down the snowy canyon trail towards the trailhead. I have most of the outdoor survival skills down, but it’s not like I can quit Scouts if I get bored. Dad said I can’t get my driver’s license until I make Eagle Scout. I’m Star rank now, close to Life. I guess that makes Loa my lifesaver since he’s the biggest reason I still enjoy Scouts. And I mean huge. Loa is a Polynesian, larger at fourteen than most men.
For the next two pages, the friends talk about Morgan’s problems: his mom, his dead brother Brand, bullies, and his plan to beat the bullies in a race through the woods which will earn Morgan his Orienteering merit badge. Maybe that’s too much getting to know him before the bad thing below happens. After working a month to add all the characterization before the action, most of my new local critique group thinks the characterization is info-dump and the next paragraph is where the story should start. If you agree, this could become my action opening (with a sentence or two to clarify the setting before it happens):
4. Possible Action first:
As I stepped over a patch of ice, the old familiar nightmare filled my mind. Petals of fire bloomed before my eyes in a slow motion explosion. Fire devoured an army vehicle carrying my oldest brother Brand, who died almost two years ago. Blinded, I slipped and then felt Loa’s hand grab my elbow.
A conversation with Loa explains that Morgan has this same nightmare almost every night, and he wasn’t even there when his brother died. To make choices harder, I thought of combining two scenes into a mix, sandwiching characterization and conversation between action scenes:
5. Possible mix. Here are the first two paragraphs (edited 5/8 because of comments from peope who like #2.)
Monday after school, a blinding light flashed from dark clouds above the woods east of Utah’s Air Force Base. Waiting for thunder to follow, I kept my head low as I rode my bike through the slush. All I heard was a whistle, so high-pitched only I or a dog could hear it. The closer I got, the more I felt the need to hurry. I didn’t want anything to ruin my plans to combine earning my Boy Scout Orienteering Merit Badge with beating the jock bullies. I had challenged them to a race though these woods using only a map and compass.
My heart thumped when I saw my chosen entry-point across a snowy field. Slewing to a halt, I felt slush splash my pants, but that didn’t bother me compared to the woods. I pushed up my new glasses to see better. Deep inside the treeline, I saw a glow. Fire! My fear broke out as sweat, but it seemed a life or death matter for me to get in there. I dropped my bike and ran towards it.
My character’s friend arrives and stops him. They talk over the problem until the storm breaks and puts out the fire. Then they joke a bit to relieve the tension before they go in the woods to investigate and set up the course. Smoke causes my character’s waking nightmare of his brother’s death before he discovers the thing that changes his life. I could use this right after the In Media Res part if most of you choose to keep it.
Keeping in mind the nature of the other planet, in your comments please tell me your age group (young teen, older teen, or adult) and which works better as a book hook for you and why? If you want me to keep number one, please say how much, and which other should follow. Even if you don’t want me to keep number one, please give at least your first two choices in order of preference, or list all of them in order. If you don’t like any of my ideas, please give me a better one. Who knows? You might be the one whose suggestion ends up in my final copy.
The most convincing comment will win a book or e-books of his or her choice up to $10 from Amazon. I’ll give it until the end of my 600 follower contest before I decide. That contest is still open on my “win chocolate and books” page where you can see about half of the books available, but I’m also placing the form here. Ignore the part where it says to comment on any other post. That’s if you enter from the contest page. If you enter here, please comment here with your book hook choice and reason. Thanks!
Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.
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