Tuesday 5 February 2019

Great Starts by Alex English

This week has been a busy one for me and my fellow Bath Spa graduates as it's been the release of Bookshelf, the anthology of extracts of our work produced on the MA Writing for Young People course. It's the culmination of a lot of hard graft and I feel very proud of what we've produced.
A shameless plug for the 2018 MAWYP anthology!
The anthology consists of the first two thousand words of each student's manuscript for children or young adults and, after weeks of hard work with the rest of the team, I've at last got round to reading these twenty-six brilliant little nuggets of writing. It was hugely enjoyable, but it also got me thinking – what does make a great beginning to a children's (or indeed any) novel?

This is what hooks me when I read, and it's what I look at when I'm editing work too:

1. Whose story is it?

It sounds obvious, but I want to know straight away who my protagonist is. Whose side am I on? If I like them, that's even better. And please don't overwhelm me with zillions of characters from the get-go, feed them in gradually so my feeble mind can cope.

2. Where am I?

I don't mean starting with swathes of description, a few simple details are enough, but I need to feel grounded somewhere pretty much straight away. If there's a sense of the wider world then that's great too. Whatever you choose to include, just make it specific – the tick of the grandfather clock in the eastern hall, Grandpa's drawer of mermaids' purses and scallop shells or a screeching wind rattling the orphanage shutters all help to set the scene in a few words.  

3. Is anything actually happening?

Again, this seems obvious, but something needs to be happening in the first chapter. Characters shouldn't just sit and talk, they should talk while they're doing something interesting. Let them have that argument while they're trying to break into the castle, or let them try to hide that secret from their mother while she's cutting their hair. It's a whole lot more fun to write, and more fun to read too. 

4. What's at stake?

A sense of something deeply important being at risk for a character keeps me on the edge of my seat and therefore keeps me reading. This doesn't need to be life and death (of course it could be, depending on the genre), but it needs to mean life and death to the character. 

5. Is there a sense of mystery?

This might be a personal one, and I don't think this is essential for every story, but a sense of foreboding, of something not-quite-right lurking just beneath the surface or questions to be answered draws me in every time! I am an absolute sucker for a dark family secret, a secret map, an ominous portent or the appearance of a mysterious stranger.    

What do you think makes a great first few pages? Have I missed anything off my checklist? And do please read the Bookshelf anthology, I'm hugely proud of my MA classmates and I hope you'll agree that our hard work has paid off.

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing and she has more forthcoming from Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber.


Nick Garlick said...

This is excellent advice. I always amaze myself by how often I forget these very things when I'm working a first draft.

Alex English said...

Yes, it's a lot easier when you're thinking about somebody else's work!