Thursday, January 16, 2014

The importance of a North Star for writers

The third in series of blog posts for my 8th grade students about the process of trying to publish my YA historical novel.

As all of my queries are done through email, some literary agents set up an automatic reply. Usually, an email comes back stating that they received your manuscript. However, I want to take a moment to draw your attention to the following screenshot. It represents a good lesson for you.

A literary agent does not need much of your work to determine if you are a writer they will devote any time to. Think about it--all they need are the first five pages in order to ascertain if they want to see more.

Five pages.

The prevailing theory is that whatever strengths and weaknesses show themselves on pages 1-5 are going to remain on page 6 and beyond.

In the most recent SCBWI bulletin, Kim Tomsic's article entitled First Impressions points out the importance of the first line. She writes, "action in books for the young must start before the opening line." 

Think about that. Your first line must come from within a world that is already happening, alive, and in conflict. We don't have the luxury of starting with backstory, setting, and sweeping character descriptions. Take a look at some of the examples that Tomsic offers:

"I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves." Shiver by Maggie Steifvater
"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
"They took me in my nightgown." Between Shades of Grey, by Ruta Sepetys

This is not to say that an opening line is the be all and end all of your story. Rather, I tend to regard it as a frame of mind. It put me and my manuscript in a better place. Perhaps it will be changed based on the suggestions of an agent or an editor, but right now my opening line stands at:

"The Alps are a beautiful place to die."

Quite honestly, revising the opening of my manuscript in this way made me think of another excellent piece of writing advice. YA author Irene Latham told a class of my students to figure out what the North Star of their story might be, and follow that. Of course, the North Star is what sailors use to find their way home. As it pertains to my manuscript, my North Star was the question, how does this situation, act, conflict fit the immigrant's experience?

Having this very specific point written in the margin of my writer's notebook and typed into a note on Scrivener, guided the actions and consequences of my characters.

By applying the North Star theory to my opening line and first five pages, it gave my characters something to chase and it provided a coherence to the conclusion of the novel.

The novel ends with some characters having found their home. 

And we're left with others still looking. And who will always be looking.

Blog Series Links

Blog 1: Queries, pitches and my YA novel  
Blog 2: Relevant Bones or the synopsis of a manuscript
Blog 4: A Lesson in Rejection

No comments:

Post a Comment