Write an Opening Chapter that Hooks Readers

CaptureThis year, I have left behind the characters who populated the series that I’ve been writing for several years. I’m embarking on a voyage to a new world, with a crew who is brand new to me. It’s fun and thrilling to be writing something completely new, but starting from scratch is also much harder than continuing a series.

The first chapter of any book, but especially the first book in a series, has to be gripping. Win a reader and they could go on to follow your characters for a long time. I’m now on the fifth major rewrite of my first chapter, and in honor of that I thought I’d share some DOs and DON’Ts that I’ve learned the hard way, with examples of excellent series openings from successful YA authors.

DO get to the story quickly rather than delving into too much description.
When your readers know nothing, it’s tempting to want to share everything you can about their backstory and the world they inhabit. But readers want to be immersed in a world, unaware that they are learning a character’s quirks and how their world functions because they’re more involved in the drama unfolding. I love Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the first book of The Lunar Chronicles, because she doesn’t waste time introducing Cinder and Prince Charming and throwing them together right away. She hooked me by the end of the first chapter, and I kept reading until I finished the series.

DON’T jump into the middle of an action sequence from the first page. (Most of the time.)
Some authors take the advice of getting to the story quickly to mean that they throw their main character into the middle of a battle, or struggling to survive, from the first sentence. Remember, before your protagonist faces big danger, the reader has to care if they live or die. There are examples of stories that start “In Medias Res” (in the middle of things) but those done well are rare. If you’re a new author, stick to a simpler scene that lets us get to know the character.

DO give readers a picture of what the main characters look like.
While no reader wants to read pages about the protagonist’s long, flowing locks of golden hair, they do want to have a sketch of the characters in their minds. This is a tidbit that I’ve ignored in the past, and readers and agents have called me on it time and again. For an example of an author who puts a riveting picture in your mind from page one, check out We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. When the main character says of her family, “The Sinclairs are athletic, tall and handsome…Our smiles are wide, our chins are square, and our tennis serves aggressive” we can picture the protagonist and her family’s appearance and personality in one swoop.

DON’T start your story with your character waking up.
I saw this tidbit in several reputed literary agents’ pet peeves. Starting your story at the start of your main character’s day makes logical sense – to everyone. Readers, editors, and agents alike have read this kind of opening so many times that it has become cliche.

DO end your first chapter with a teaser that invites the reader to turn the page, NOW.
No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it takes time to get a reader to invest emotionally in your character’s life. The first chapter is about piquing the reader’s interest, but it will take longer than that to earn their sympathy and empathy. With that in mind, a little mystery or promise of something fascinating to come goes a long way toward keeping readers moving forward with your story. Maggie Stiefvater does an excellent job of this in The Raven Boys. She introduces the protagonist, Blue, as a girl from a family with supernatural gifts. They’ve always predicted that she will kill her true love. The chapter ends with a promise from one of the characters that this is the year that she’ll fall in love. Will I continue reading? Hell, yes!

DON’T be afraid to change your first chapter, even if it impacts the rest of your story.
I know from experience that there is nothing more daunting for a writer than making a change to the first chapter that ripples through the rest of the book you’ve written (or in some cases, the series). But taking the time to make the opening perfect is an investment that will pay you back in spades. If readers aren’t hooked, they’ll never have the opportunity to see how great your writing gets by chapter 6. So grit your teeth and make it perfect, consequences be damned.

There are few things more difficult to do, or more critical to your success as an author, than writing an outstanding first chapter. But when you get it exactly right, the momentum can carry you through the rest of the book, and even the rest of the series. Readers will forgive a crappy chapter 32, but they will never read past a weak chapter 1.


Why Every YA Author Should Post a Book on Wattpad

e56666b5164c669f57b13bcc8fd05f54I know I’m a little late to the party, but recently I had a wonderful experience posting the first novel in my YA fantasy series, The Society of Imaginary Friends, on Wattpad. It’s been so rewarding that I recommend that any self-published YA author upload a book on this site. Did I make money? No. Did I connect with hundreds of grateful fans who were thrilled with my story? Yes!

Wattpad is a site where authors, many of whom are new writers, post their books one chapter at a time for free (my book’s page is here, if you’re curious). Readers can vote if they liked a chapter, and can comment on every chapter. There is a great app so that you can read on your phone, tablet or computer. Also, because all of the books on Wattpad are free, there are a lot of young, avid readers yearning for good YA fiction to read.

For me, this was an opportunity to connect with the readers whom I had written my series for. Many, if not most, of the people who have downloaded my series on Amazon are in their late teens or are adults. On Wattpad, the majority of the readers of my story are 13-18, my intended audience, and they responded warmly to my novel. Their positive energy has reinvigorated my writing, and is at least as rewarding as any paid sale of my books that I’ve received.

If you want to connect to a devoted YA readership, definitely publish at least one of your novels on Wattpad. Below are some tips to make the most out of your experience.

Once your full book is posted, make it a Featured listing. (This is free.)
When I began posting chapters of my book on Wattpad, I had very few readers. Even when I posted it on the Wattpad boards for “young adult” and “fantasy” and read and commented on other authors’ books, my story was relatively unknown. That’s when I discovered that Wattpad will promote your book as a “featured” story for free once most or all of the chapters of your book are published. Once I was featured, I had a couple thousand readers a day for the first week, and after that continued to have hundreds of new readers checking out my story for weeks afterward.

Reply to all comments on your book.
One of the best parts of Wattpad is that it is a chance to hear what your audience thinks of your writing. The readers on this site are vocal, which I loved. I received valuable feedback about what characters were resonating with my audience, and when the plot was getting slow. Most of the comments were very positive, and it brightened my day to read them.

Check your book’s engagement and demographic stats.
Wattpad tracks a lot of helpful metrics about who is reading your book. Demographic information including the gender, age and geographic location of your readership is very telling. You can quickly assess if your cover and blurb are drawing the audience you are targeting. Wattpad also tracks how many votes and comments each chapter received. This is helpful to see if certain chapters receive more or less attention, and help you identify where readers are losing interest, or where their interest is piqued.

Bask in the sunshine of your fans adoration.
Best of all, all that positive energy directed at me from my new, enthusiastic Wattpad fans put a fire under me to keep writing. Self-publishing can be a long, lonely road, and knowing that readers are devouring my work and begging for more, even if they can’t pay for it, made all that work feel worthwhile.

Do you have any additional tips for success on Wattpad? If so, please share!

The Pros and Cons of Cursing in Young Adult Literature

expletiveAfter six books that were curse free, I’ll never forget my surprise near the end of the final Harry Potter book, when Mrs. Weasley calls the woman who killed her son a bitch. I remember wondering – can she do that? Of course, she can and she did. But that’s J. K. Rowling. Should you, in your self-published young adult novel, take the same risk?

The general consensus is that there is no consensus. Some parents (and even YA readers) are completely offended by profanity of any sort in literature aimed at readers who are not technically considered adults.

There are ways around this, of course. Authors like John Green, in addition to the occasional real swear word, also invent their own (like “douchepants” in The Fault in our Stars). Personally, I think that made up curse words rarely  have the same impact as the real thing, and, at worst, come off a little silly. Occasionally there’s a word like “frak” from the Battlestar Gallactica TV show that resonates, but often it feels like what it is – a bit of a cop out.

In general, using a few well-chosen curse words in YA literature seems like a pretty safe bet. Most people are comfortable with it in specific situations, especially if the words chosen aren’t the really forbidden ones. (You know what they are.) YA authors who use some cursing  are in good company – a 2012 Brigham Young study reported that 88% of the top 40 YA books contained at least some profanity.

Of course, there’s always the option to stay completely clean, although I can’t imagine a scenario where a young adult says, “Aw, pickles!” when he’s really frustrated. That might inspire my laughter, but there is no universe in which that character can be considered anything approaching cool.

I’m considering, for my next series, writing from the perspective of a character who would swear A LOT. It feels like it would be true to her voice to never hold back. Have you ever known someone who curses less in anger, but more as a matter of course? I have, and it’s funny and refreshing. But then again, I was raised in a house where cursing was okay as long as we didn’t do it in public. I don’t think that’s rare – teens are exposed to swearing much more today than a few decades ago, and it doesn’t have the same power to offend that it did in the past.

I would really value some advice on this one. Do you think that considerable cursing in YA literature is acceptable, or should I tone down how my character talks so as not to offend?

How to Kill the Villian in Your YA Fantasy Series (with Style)

shutterstock_96012164The time has come, now that I’m wrapping up my YA/Middle Grade fantasy series, The Conjurors, to say goodbye to my favorite character – the villain. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s going to get the axe. Unfortunately, his actions have been so unforgivable that I can’t risk leaving him alive in a jail cell somewhere. He’d always be at the back of my mind, and I’d worry that he’d get loose and hurt the characters in my story who have earned their happily-ever-afters.

So what should be my weapon of choice? A simple thrust through the heart, perhaps? Or something more complicated, like when Voldemort’s own killing curse is reflected back on him and he technically dies by his own hand? If you sense that I’m morbidly excited to off him, you’d be absolutely right.

As I plot my own villain’s demise, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from all-star YA fantasy authors who have axed their villains with flair.

Make it personal.
Dark Triumph, His Fair Assassin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers
In order for readers to truly relish the demise of a villain, the protagonist needs to have a profound connection with her nemesis. In many cases she has spent years or even decades battling this foe, with a string of defeats behind her. That’s why it’s so sweet when the villain is slain at last – it makes the world better, yes, but it also fundamentally changes the protagonist for the better. When the heroine in Dark Triumph, Sybella, kills the truly horrible villain of the first two books, d’Albret, it isn’t abstract or at a distance. Raised as his daughter and tormented by him her entire life, the demise of d’Albret can be at no hand but her own for the reader to find it satisfying. And LaFevers doesn’t disappoint. Sybella personally plunges her dagger into his belly and damages as many organs as she can. Both the personal connection Sybella has with the villain and the personal nature of how she destroys him makes his demise gory but intensely satisfying.

Let your hero win the day but share the glory.
The Last Olympian, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Rick Riordan
There is a cathartic enjoyment watching a protagonist ride into the sunset in a blaze of glory and recognition, but there is a deeper, more profound satisfaction from watching him give the credit away, giving up the fame and being the quiet, unsung hero. Riordan does a great job of executing this in the final battle of the Percy Jackson series. Percy is fighting a friend, Luke, who betrayed him and is now possessed by the villain of the series, Kronos. For a moment Luke manages to regain control of himself, and Percy gives him a knife and Luke kills himself, delivering the final blow to Kronos at the same time. Luke’s sacrifice makes him the hero. But Percy is a hero too, choosing to trust Luke to make the right choice and not to insist that he be the one to deliver the killing blow. As a reader, I never liked Percy more than at that powerful moment.

Have your protagonist tap into new strength/power/mental toughness.
Clockwork Princess, The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare
If you’re writing a series and are finally coming to a point where it’s time to kill the villain of the series, your protagonist has likely had some successes. She has tapped into new powers, learned new skills, and grown as a human in every book. But now you have to top yourself one last time, and let her tap into something truly amazing within herself in order to finally emerge victorious. In Clockwork Princess, Tessa does just that. She has the power to change her form and become anyone, as long as she has an object that belongs to them. In the climax of the series, she turns into an angel who is trapped within a necklace, and destroys the villain, Mortmain, in a blaze of power. He dies scorched in her grip. I also like that Cassandra Clare makes Tessa pay a price for tapping in to so much power, and she nearly dies. Destroying your arch nemesis shouldn’t be easy.

Give your protagonist a positive motivator to destroy the villain (rather than being driven by hate).
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
It can sound counterintuitive to say that your protagonist shouldn’t be fueled by hate for the villain, but I’ve found again and again that the best protagonists grow to be motivated by a positive emotion, like love, rather than a negative one, like revenge or hatred. Warm Bodies is an unusual example of this, but bear with me. In this story, the true villain is a plague that turns people into zombies. That plague is really apathy and giving up on life, and the hero of the book, R, fights back, even though he has succumbed to the plague. When R chooses life and love, risking everything for his soul mate, Julie, he defeats this enemy by coming back from the dead, returning to life.