Author Archives: Rosanne Parry

Start with a Bang–Or Not: Story Openings

     “Begin with a bang!” Is the advice I’ve heard as a writer over and over from the very beginning.
     “Kids attention spans are short.”
    “Grab them from the very first line and don’t let them go!”
     It seems like sound advice. Certainly there are clear advantages to beginning a book with a scene of physical action, high suspense or emotional intensity. It establishes what’s at stake at once and sets up an expectation for a fast paced, high energy plot. It can create an element of mystery or suspense. It can highlight a distinctive voice

 

     A splashy opening is lots of fun to write and who doesn’t love a gripper of an opening line? And yet in my own writing I’ve come across a few limitations to the big bang beginning. For example, If the reader doesn’t identify with the MC right off the bat, the stakes you create won’t matter to your reader. Also there is a danger that the reader
 may not know who the MC is and feel sympathy for and loyalty to a character you don’t intend them to. A power house opening can feel manipulative & jarring at best and over-wrought & silly at worst. And sometimes a very intense first scene sets an expectation that’s nearly impossible to top.

     So what’s a writer to do? I have always been drawn to a high action beginning, but more and more often I’ve found myself editing out my zippy opening paragraphs or moving them a page or two into the story.
As I often do in a quandary I turn to the books of authors I admire, to stories I’ve found moving. In a quick search on novel beginnings. I chose 12 books, 10 of which were published in the last 15 years. They were all award winners and strong sellers. To my complete shock only one of the 12 had an action opening. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry begins with the main character and her friend racing home from school only to be stopped and questioned by a Nazi soldier. Two others had action scenes that started within the first 3 pages, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus. And in the case of Speak the it’s a scene of great emotional intensity rather than one of action in the classic sense.
But by far my sample of best selling and award winning books did not begin with action. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie begins with an explanation of encephalitis, and its repercussions in the life of the narrator Junior. The first scene that has anything resembling action is actually a moment of incredible emotional power in which Junior’s father shoots Junior’s dog because they can’t afford to take him to the vet. The scene occurs on page 9. Holes by Louis Sachar maybe the most popular MG novel ever to win the Newberry, but it does not begin with action either. Stanley doesn’t start digging a hole until page 26.
So what are those authors doing in those precious first pages?

In every book I looked at they were introducing me to a character so unique and compelling that I cared about what happened when the high stakes action finally came into play. They opened not with a bang but with a voice–a choice well worth emulating.
So here’s my reading challenge for the week. Pick up 5 of the books you’ve read in the last year that you admired the most. Go look at the opening scene and analyze what you see there? You might be surprised. I’d love to hear about your favorite opening scenes in comments below.

 

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari

Summer is a great time to read a new mystery and FINDING MIGHTY is the epitome of a great summer read. Even better it’s written by Edgar Award nominee Sheela Chari. Sheela and I met several years ago when her first book VANISHED and my SECOND FIDDLE were out in the same year. Both books had a musical element and so we did some events together with a group of MG and YA authors on the Stages on Pages tour. One of the real delights of writing is the people you meet on the journey, and I’m thrilled that my path has crossed Sheela’s again.

 Let’s start with Parkour and why you chose it. Are you a practitioner of this sport?

I came to learn about parkour in a roundabout way. While writing FINDING MIGHTY, I envisioned that some of the graffiti tags that appear as clues in the story were up very high off the ground. I wondered how someone would reach such heights without being slowed down by equipment. So in my research, I came across parkour, and I thought of course! So that’s how some of my characters ended up being practitioners of both graffiti and parkour.

But then as I kept writing, I found myself being drawn to this art form more and more. And I specifically refer to parkour as art because even though it’s an urban movement sport, parkour runners use their bodies in efficient ways that emphasize the beauty of their form. I began to go past the stereotypes we normally associate with parkour – daredevils climbing bridges and jumping off buildings – and see how, like yoga, parkour is about controlling your movement and negotiating physical space. As someone who is fascinated by bridges and yet incredibly afraid of heights, it makes sense to me that I would find parkour beautiful and thrilling. For me, the ability to jump and fall gracefully, and land on your feet is the ultimate superpower. So a not-so secret admirer of parkour? Yes. A practitioner? No. Well, not yet.

If you are curious about what a parkour run looks like here’s a video of one of the more extreme practitioners of the sport James Kingston.

Tell us about the relationship between Myla and Peter and how the racial element of that friendship plays out. I think MG kids are both more relaxed about interracial friendships but also more aware of nuances. Is that your experience as well?

In thinking and writing about Myla and Peter, I came across their characters very differently. In the simplest way – Peter started off as plot and Myla as character. With Peter, his story began with an “Omar” tag I would see on the highway near my home. I would wonder who wrote it and why. Eventually I shortened the tag to “Om” and Peter’s story emerged, not as the person who wrote the tag, but the younger brother searching for his missing brother, Randall, and the tag’s mysterious role in Randall’s disappearance. Myla was more like me as a young person – a highly observant girl who feels largely unnoticed by the world. Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. With Peter, I wasn’t sure who he was yet – I had to write to find his character. As I did, he evolved into someone part Indian, but also a mixture of other communities (Peter’s mother is Indian and his father is half African-American and half white). And I liked the way that organically came to the story. Myla’s and Peter’s racial identities are not the basis for their friendship, but it was a nice meeting ground – the fact that they were sort of alike but not completely. It gave them each something to learn from the other. In the end, FINDING MIGHTY is really about what happens when these two different people meet and become friends, and how their qualities become so important to the other person, whether it is help in finding a lost sibling, or in finding your sense of self.

Tell us a little bit about this gorgeous cover. As a bookseller in a diverse community I love it that you can tell from the cover that the characters are not white. Did you have any input on the cover?

 

 

 

 

Thank you! I like this cover a lot. Myla is modeled after my close family friend’s daughter. The original drawing of Myla was good but she didn’t look Indian to me. So I sent in a photo of my friend’s daughter, and then the cover artist, R. Kikuo Johnson, used that to create the final Myla on the back cover. He did an amazing job, both with Myla, and the whole cover.

Can you share some tips for MG mystery writers. I, for one, think it’s hard to write a mystery when your detectives can’t drive.

  1. MG characters make great snoops. They can be present during conversations and overhear without giving themselves away, because adults don’t often realize just how smart or intuitive kids are. So don’t be afraid to put your characters where the action is.
  2. Lists are a great way to keep track of information. Some of my favorite mysteries, such as THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, use lists to describe theories or clues. Lists are also a very visual and quick way to remind readers what they already know.
  3. Know that as crime solvers, your MG detective will have to take risks. It’s what makes her different from the rest of the mold. At the same time, not every sleuth has to scale a building to prove herself. Although in my case, Myla does, because she’s scared of heights. Which is why climbing out of her bedroom window one night to find Peter’s brother becomes necessary for both the plot and her character. So have your main character take risks, but make sure that they’re risks that test her qualities the most.
  4. It’s true that middle grade kids can’t drive. But they can walk and take the train or bus. Keep those options available – make your characters savvy enough (or brave enough) to understand a train schedule or know which stop to get off on the bus. In both my MG mystery novels, VANISHED and FINDING MIGHTY, my characters have to rely on public transportation to get them where they need to be. And in FINDING MIGHTY, two characters walk 50 blocks in Manhattan to track down a clue!
  5. Even if you’re a “pantser,” try to have a sense of the end of your book before you start. It’s not always possible – I didn’t know the ending with VANISHED until I got to the end. But even if you don’t, it’s important to know what happens during the “Big Reveal.” If you divide your story into beginning, middle, and end, I like to call this point the end of the middle. It’s when your main character finally finds out what they’ve been searching for. The more you know about this moment of revelation, the easier it will be for you to write towards it – like moving to the light at the end of the tunnel. This tip holds true for writing any mystery, or for writing a book in general.

Terrific advice! I’m going to keep it in mind for my next project. Thank you Sheela for sharing your thoughts with our MUF readers. Sheela is giving away a copy of FINDING MIGHTY. Leave us a comment to enter the drawing. A winner will be chosen in three days.

Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and VANISHED, which was an APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book, an Edgar Award nominee, and an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. She has an MFA in Fiction from New York University and teaches creative writing at Mercy College. Sheela lives in New York. Visit her online at sheelachari.com and @wordsbysheela.

 

Happy Book Birthday to Patricia Bailey and The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donavan

There are a few great joys in the writing world and a book birthday is certainly one of them. But I have found more and more that one of the most enduring joys of working in children’s books is seeing someone who just a few years ago was tentatively emb
arking on the process of writing a whole novel. Someone who is coming to their very first writers retreat. Someone who has work that they are ready to share with a mentor or a critique group for the very first time. And then to see their work grow over time and their connections in the book world develop and then one day they have a newly published book. And so I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce our newest Mixed Up File member Patricia Baily and her debut novel The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan. I met Trish in 2011 at the Summer Fishtrap, a writers workshop held in the Wallowa mountains on the home ground of Chief Joseph’s band of the Nez Perse (Nimiipuu). Trish took my workshop and had a great story that she had worked really hard on. We’ve met several times at writer’s conferences over the last several years and every time Trish had grown as a
writer and gained confidence from her network of fellow writers. I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce her to our MUF readers.

First things first. I think I saw some scenes from Kit Donavan in 2012, but how long have you been working on it altogether?
It seems like forever – but so much of that time was learning about the town of Goldfield and what was happening there during its boom years. I really started working in earnest on the writing in 2011 – when I received a Fishtrap Fellowship. So, I guess I’d say it’s taken six years to go from words on paper to a novel on a bookstore shelf.

The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan is set in a real mining boomtown. Can you tell us why you picked that time period and a little bit about your research process?

I’ve always loved stories set in the Old West. And I’ve always been particularly interested in the Turn of the Century. There was such a clash of old and new – stage coaches and automobiles, outhouses and electricity. When I came across the story of Goldfield, Nevada – with all its drama and contrast – I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to grow up in that environment. Lucky for me, a fair number of famous people passed through there, so the town was mentioned in letters and biographies that were easy to access. There’s also a thriving historical society in Goldfield and museums just down the road in Tonopah. I was able to go through old newspapers at the Central Nevada Museum and tour an old mine at the Tonopah Mining Park. I even got a private tour of Goldfield with one of the members of their Historical Society.

Historical societies are such a great resource for writers. I’ve been grateful for them many times over the years. I always struggle with finding the right names for my characters, and Kit is perfect. Is there a story or special meaning behind the names?
For some reason character names come to me pretty easily – which is good because I don’t start writing until I have one. Once I get an idea for the name that seems right, I look it up on one of those online name meaning sites to see if it fits the notes I’ve made about the character’s personality. In Kit’s case, it all meshed right away. There just wasn’t anything else to call her. She was Kit from the beginning – and it still feels completely right.

Kit is a spunky character – and one who is a little more outspoken than most girls at that time, which I love. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to develop Kit?
Kit was an interesting mix of spunky and sorry right from the beginning. She spoke her mind quickly – and often regretted it when faced with the consequences of her quick-temper. The trick with Kit was to address both sides of her personality – the part of her who wanted to be good and fit in and make friends and the part that just couldn’t stay quiet when faced with injustice – big and small. One of the things she has to reckon with is deciding if speaking her mind is worth the cost. She also knows that there are expectations for how a lady is to behave. One thing that I wanted to do was have Kit notice all the different ways women could be in the world. That – at least here in the gold camp – all women weren’t necessarily defined by the traditional lady-like life she’d been dreading.

You live in a small town with fewer resources and a smaller local writing network. How have you managed to forge a writing community there?

I think most of my local writing community has been a direct result of our county library system. For years, I’ve taken every writing-related class they’ve offered – no matter the genre. That’s how I met other people who were serious about writing. It’s taken a long time, and lots of meet ups at the local coffee shop, but I’ve managed to find a few other writers to meet with regularly. Sometimes we just talk about what we’re working on. Sometimes we critique pages or share a resource. Sometimes we talk about what we’re struggling with. I love my online writing friends, but it’s a real treat to have people you can talk to face-to-face.

I’d never make it without my critque partners either and three cheers for the local library! Next time you’re at your local library ask them to get a copy of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan, a wild west adventure story with plenty of heart.