Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Intriguing Story Openings

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

We've talked about story openings before, but lately I've been thinking about what kinds of things make the first line of a story intriguing. In our world of short attention spans, it's more important than ever to hook your reader from the first line.

But how do you do that?

You can hook your reader by . . . 
-Grabbing the reader's emotions. This could be done by making them smile, laugh, by scaring or shocking them. Any emotion can be used.
-Raising the reader's curiosity. You can do this by writing something suspenseful, by piquing the reader's imagination, by making a promise to reveal something, by letting your character say something intriguing, or by planting questions that the reader will want answers to. Anything that draws the reader in and makes them wonder what's going to happen next.

Make sure to:
-Write something simple and instantly understandable.
-Include lots of white space on that first page.
-Pay close attention to word choice. Make every one count!
-Test out your opening line on a few readers to see what they think.

Try NOT to:
-Use any backstory. At all.
-Give any information dumps. At all.
-Show your character going about his regular day. (I did this in By Darkness Hid, and I've heard numerous times that it took people a while to get into the action of my story.)
-Overdo the description. If you need some in your opening, fine. Just don't let it take over.
-Have too much action before the reader comes to care for your hero and what he's fighting for.

Keep in mind, there have been plenty of books out there that begin with things listed in the "to avoid" section above. As with every writing rule, sift it and do what is best for your story. Just make sure that you've chosen the absolute best way to start. This is a place that deserves extra attention in your rewrites. Put in the time necessary to get it right.

Do you struggle with story openings? Care to share your first sentence below?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Whatever it is you're doing, you're totally wrong.

by Stephanie Morrill

I'll never forget the time I shyly told a boy I liked that I wanted to be a writer. "And what will you do when that falls through?" he asked.

That comment, which I'll guess he put exactly two nanoseconds of thought into, echoed in my head for years afterward. With every failed manuscript, every rejection, every bump in the road. What will you do when that falls through?

Because I didn't know. If writing didn't work out for me, I had absolutely no idea.

Maybe that's why this wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson makes me smile: "Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong."

How true is that? And not just for risky careers like writing, for every aspect of life. Parenting and friendships and what you eat and how you study and what bands you like. There's always someone who wants to tell you why you're wrong. And if you can learn early on to ignore those who jump to tell you how wrong you are, you'll save yourself a lot of frustration.

Do you have a way of dealing with naysayers that helps you to ignore them?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Does my book need a prologue?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

You will findor perhaps have already discoveredthat the use of prologues in stories is a surprisingly controversial issue. Some writers are so strong in their anti-prologue beliefs that in my early novel writing days, I once walked away from a class thinking, "I will never be a lazy writer who uses a prologue!"

But that's crazy talk. A prologue is a storytelling tool in your tool box. Can it be used ineffectively? Absolutely. But I don't think that's a reason to throw them out entirely.

Prologues that I typically DON'T like:

The info dump: I frequently hear contest judges talk about how many fantasy submissions start with a prologue where the writer explains the story world and the history of the people. If you're a fantasy writer and you've started your story this way, I would advise that you cut that prologue and paste it into a, "Just for me" document. It's great information to know, but it's not the best way to start a story.

I understand the temptation to write this way. After all, many of the fairy tales we're raised with start with an info dumpy style opening, including a ton of Disney movies. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled, and Frozen are the ones that immediately pop to mind.

Because you want the readers to "get" your storyworld, it seems like you need to tell them a lot of information. Think about The Hunger Games, though, and the way it drops us right into the story, feeding us bits of information at a time.

Cheater openings: This is when the prologue is actually a scene from the middle or end-ish of the book, but the author has put it up front. While it's certainly attention grabbing, this can also be a signal that your chapter one is snooze-worthy.

For example, the movie Mission Impossible III opens with a scene between Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the villain (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and Ethan's wife (Michelle Monaghan). The villain is torturing Ethan Hunt by way of torturing his wife, and just as the scene climaxes, we cut away to the "real" beginning of the story.

The opening scene with Ethan Hunt, the villain, and Ethan's wife is actually the climax of the movie. After the flash forward, they take us back to Ethan and Julia's engagement party. Why did they make that choice?My best guess is that they felt an engagement party had too ordinary a vibe for a Mission Impossible movie. They wanted a different tone.

My opinion is that robbing your climax just so you don't have to come up with a bang of a way to start your story is a bit lazy. But I like the movie, and it did very well in the box office, so the cheater opening is forgivable.

In the novel Twilight, Stephenie Meyer did something similar. She robs from the climax (though in a subtle way, seeing as she doesn't simply cut and paste) and opens her story like this, "I'd never given much thought to how I would diethough I'd had reason enough in the last few monthsbut even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this."

That's an excellent opening line, isn't it? It raises so many questions about this character. Much better than the first line of chapter one: "My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down."

For a novel about vampires, the prologue Stephenie Meyer uses is much more effective at setting the tone than the opening of chapter one, which details Bella's farewell to her mother and introduces us to the rainy town of Forks, Washington. Since her prologue is only half a page long, and since it's sold a gazillion copies, again, the cheater opening is forgivable.

Prologues that I DO like:

The prologues that I like tend to fall into one category: An interesting scene that takes places well before the bulk of the story takes place, but that impacts the main character's journey.

A great example of this can be found in Shannon Dittemore's Angel Eyes. The novel follows a teenage girl in a contemporary, modern day setting. The prologue, however, takes place 2,500 years ago in Israel and involves the villain of the story. It's short, it's beautiful, and it's effective. (Thanks to the preview feature on Amazon, you can actually read the prologue and the start of chapter one for free. Though good luck with holding off on reading the rest of Shannon's book!)

The Harry Potter series starts off with a prologue that's rather controversial among writers. You could make an argument that a prologue that follows adults isn't the most effective way to start a middle grade story. It's hard to argue too vehemently, however, against something that's had the wild success of Harry Potter. I like Rowling's prologue for a couple reasons. 

One is that it's entertaining. The Dursleys are just plain funny to read about. Right away, Rowling's prose is bursting with personality. ("Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." Just reading the opening sentence makes me want to reread the whole series.)

Another reason the prologue works is that it shows us some very interesting things that hold our interest. A cat reading a map. A man in an emerald green cape. Owls everywhere. We're intrigued.

But the real reason I feel this prologue is necessary to the story is that I can't figure out where else Rowling could have put this scene. There's important information in there, and it's much better conveyed to us like this than it would be if, say, Dumbledore was telling Harry about it later.

Yet considering the prologue seventeen pages long, confusing if you know nothing about the story world, and focuses on adults, it's not the opening I would have advised for a middle grade story. So, really, what do I know?

As you can see, prologues are not one size fits all, even among wildly successful books. Twilight has one paragraph that alludes to the climax of the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has seventeen pages that detail life on Privet Drive 10 years before the rest of the story takes place, and Hunger Games doesn't have one at all.

What matters is that you're intentional and thoughtful with the way you open your story.

Do you use a prologue to tell your story? Why do you feel it works?

Friday, October 17, 2014

The End. Almost.

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Happy Friday, friends! This week has been a blur, what with the word war and our writing retreat and all. A few weeks back we talked about story endings and I thought I'd continue on in that thread since it's where I'm at.

Both Steph and Jill mentioned it on the blog and I've plastered it all over social media, but in case you happened to miss it, I FINISHED MY BOOK!

Well. Sort of. I mean, before we went to Tahoe I had drafted and edited everything but the climax and the denouement (which, by the way, isn't pronounced the way you think it is). But while we were away, I was able to finish it off. But the end isn't always the end. And with National Novel Writing Month fast approaching, I thought it'd be wise to mention that drafted novels are not finished novels.

They must be edited as brutally as you possibly can and they must be polished. Once I finished those final scenes, I made myself a Punch List. A To Do List. A These-Things-Must-Be-Done-Before-I-Send-It-To-My-Agent list. It looks a little like this.

Let me explain:

1. Timeline: I need to verify that I don't have any timeline issues. In other words, I need to make sure everyone can feasibly be where I need them to be when I need them there. I added several scenes in the editing process and I need to double check all my characters whereabouts. I also check for bloopers at this stage. If a character's wearing blue flip flops in one paragraph, she probably shouldn't have orange ones on in the next. Unless that's a plot point, of course.

2. Notes Review: On my last pass through the manuscript, I made notes. I have two pages of questions I need to answer and those adjustments need to be made in the manuscript.

3. Chapter length and endings: I have a few long chapters and some may need to be broken up. At this stage, I also want to be sure my chapter endings are compelling. We all want readers to keep flipping pages and this is the place where that battle is won.

4. Formatting: There is a way manuscripts are supposed to be formatted and sometimes editors and agents have their own requirements. Don't get fancy here, friends. Play by the rules. I always make sure my baby looks bright and shiny and just as Holly (my agent) expects it to look.

5. Research Questions: I screwed this one up on my list up there, but before I can do my final read through, I must get some questions answered and I've recruited a few experts to help. A physician's assistant has offered to answer some questions for me and very soon I'll drop him a message. I also have a lovely friend who's had two heart transplants. TWO! We're going to have coffee and I'm going to take advantage of her experience and her knowledge on the subject. Might be my favorite task on this list of to-dos!

6. Final read through: While I call this my final read through, it's possible I'll read my manuscript once more. Depends entirely on step number 7.

7. Beta Readers: After I've done everything to this baby that I can possibly think to do, I'll send it off to my beta readers and I'll cross all my arms and legs and pray they love it. But, I'm also hoping they'll catch my mistakes and inconsistencies. And when they do, I'll have another opportunity to make changes before I . . .


So, what do you think, friends? Did I miss anything important? Before you send your stories off to be read, what sort of things do you double check? Help a sister out!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Teen Author Boot Camp

by Jill Williamson

I was so glad to meet Jennifer Jenkins, co-founder of Teen Author Boot Camp, this past September at Salt Lake Comic Con. I decided to have her on Go Teen Writers so you all could learn about her amazing teen writers conference! But first, here's a little but about Jennifer:

With her degree in History and Secondary Education, Jennifer had every intention of teaching teens to love George Washington and appreciate the finer points of ancient battle stratagem. (Seriously, she’s obsessed with ancient warfare. Weird? We know.) However, life had different plans in store when the writing began. As a proud member of Writers Cubed, and a co-founder of the Teen Author Boot Camp, she feels blessed to be able to fulfill both her ambition to work with teens as well as write Young Adult fiction. NAMELESS, her first published work, releases Fall of 2015.

She has three children who are experts at naming her characters, one loving, supportive husband, a dog with little-man syndrome, and three chickens (of whom she is secretly afraid). You can learn more about Jennifer at

Thanks for stopping by Go Teen Writers, Jennifer. What is Teen Author Boot Camp?

Founded by the five women of Writers Cubed, Inc. (a federal non-profit), Teen Author Boot Camp is one of the largest writing conferences in the nation for youth ages 13-19. It is a daylong event where teens have the unique opportunity to learn from their favorite authors in a motivating environment. At registration, teens receive a T-shirt, drawstring backpack, and a pass for bottomless soda throughout the day. We also feed you lunch and a snack. It's seriously like Christmas for the teen writer.

We host a highly competitive first chapter contest judged by professional authors. Teens submit their work prior to the conference, and the top ten finalist in both the Jr. High and High School divisions receive a full chapter critique. The top three in each division also receive cash prizes and a plaque made by the artist/creator of the Iron Man suit. Pretty amazing! Winners and prizes are announced at the conference. One of last year's winners was picked up by literary agent, Jo Schaffer, who acted as a judge in the contest.

Since 2011, TABC’s live and virtual classes have reached thousands. In 2014, five hundred teens attended the conference at UVU with around seventy teens on a waiting list. Past keynotes at the TABC include Kiersten White (PARANORMALCY), Brandon Mull (FABLEHAVEN), Shannon Hale (PRINCESS ACADEMY), James Dashner (THE MAZE RUNNER), and Ally Condie (MATCHED). Additional NYT bestselling authors who have presented at the conference include: Janette Rallison, Bree Despain, and Aprilynne Pyke.

This year we're excited to announce international bestseller, Brandon Sanderson, as our afternoon keynote.

How exciting! *Jill tries not to hyperventilate* Everyone here at GTW knows how much I love Brandon Sanderson's books. How often do you have boot camp events?

TABC is held annually at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah every Spring. Next year's conference will be April 11, 2015.

We've recently been asked to host a Teen Author Boot Camp in conjunction with a major writing conference in St. Louis on July 23, 2015. Details with that are still being ironed out, but it looks like it will be a blast.

Do agents and editors attend TABC?

At our 2015 conference we have three publishers and three agents attending.

How much does it cost?

The conference is $49 for the entire day if you register before February 1st. This includes lunch, a snack, bottomless soda, T-shirt, drawstring backpack, and other materials. As a non-profit, we fight to keep costs low for our teens and offer a scholarship programs to deserving teens on our website. All authors (including keynotes) and organizers donate their time to put on this event.

Are there housing options and meal plans available for teens who live far away?

As of right now, we do not offer housing for attending teens. It's something we're hoping to do in the future through the University. There is a very nice Hampton Inn right across from UVU though. :)

What can a teen writer expect from attending a Teen Author Boot Camp event?

Hmmm. I answered some of this earlier, but I will say this: Expect to meet a lot of teens who share your interests and goals. This year's schedule includes twenty-five authors from around the United States whose books will be sold all day long at the conference. There will be an epic opening ceremony to kick off the day at 9:00 am, six breakout sessions with seven different class options available in each session, a keynote by Brandon Sanderson, and another epic closing ceremony. Because this will be our five year anniversary, you can expect a few extra "surprises" to spice up your day, as well. :P At the end of the day there will be a massive signing with all participating authors.

That sounds amazing, Jennifer. Thank you for taking the time to tell us about this conference.

And guess what, guys... I applied to present a class at the 2015 Teen Writers Boot Camp, and they selected me as a Drill Sergeant! I get to teach my Map-Making 101 class at the same conference Brandon Sanderson is keynoting! *fangirls* (I'll be good, I promise.) 

I do hope that some of you can come. Visit for more information. And check out this sweet official badge Jennifer gave me:

Any questions? Want to go to TABC? Do you have a favorite writers conference?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Final Word Counts from the Go Teen Writers Word War


It's Jill! Hello! Congrats on finishing the word war!

So how did you do this past week? Add up your word counts for each day and type the grand total in the comments below. Here are our results. Remember, Stephanie and Shannon weren't word warring. They were edit warring.

Stephanie finished her first edit. (Whoo hoo!) Then she started again on a second edit and made it half of the way through.

Shannon finished the first draft of her new novel. (Yay!) Then she almost did a complete edit!

I finished my first draft of King's Folly before lunch on Monday! (So, so happy.) I typed 32,033 words on it to finish. Next week I'll start edits.

Steph and Shannon helped me come up with some great ideas for my Achan and Vrell novella. I'm tentatively calling in The Journal of Ancient Kings. That name might change, of course, but it's better than calling it "Achan and Vrell novella."

And since I got done a bit early, I started working on Broken Trust. Writing Spencer's point of view was a fun way to end the weekend. The guy just cracks me up. In the end, typed 4417 words on Broken Trust.

So my grand word war total was 36,450 words. Whew!

And we all got to type THE END on our stories.

Thanks to everyone who participated. We knew you were writing with us, and that really helped motivate us to make the most of our writing retreat. We're proud of you all!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Day 6 of the Go Teen Writers Word War

Stephanie here! Can you believe it's the last day of our word war? I can ... my brain is feeling a bit fried, to be honest. I'm looking forward to a day of reading as I fly home.

Here's a recap of our day yesterday. This is us pressing on yesterday morning:

Here Jill is with ONE scene left to write in her gigantic novel:

And here's Jill after she'd written her final scene: (How cute is she?)

And here we are on the shores of Lake Tahoe celebrating being out in the fresh air and sunshine:

We're all taking off and heading our separate ways today, but the war is still going on here on the blog!

If you're just joining us on the word war (or if today's the first you've heard of it) here's a quick recap: 

A word war is when you and another writer (or in this case, lots of other writers!) compete to see who can write the most words in a designated period of time. 

This word war began last Thursday and will end tonight! It's a come-and-go, write-when-you-can style of war, so it's not too late to join us!

The goal is to buckle down and focus on our manuscripts whenever we can, make good use of our writing time, and encourage each other as we do. Hopefully you'll be meeting new writers and deepening friendships as the weekend goes on!

Here's how you can connect with each other:
1. In the comments section of the blog. Something as simple as "Just wrote 1,000 words in the last hour!" is fine. There's strength in being able to encourage each other and in knowing that others are hard at work too.

2. On Twitter, using the hashtag #GTWwordwar or on the Go Teen Writers Facebook Group. (This is a closed group, so if you're not a member yet, apply to join and then shoot me an email telling me so that I can get you approved pronto.)

Looking forward to a long day of writing with you!