The fabulous #DVPit pitch contest for marginalized writers is back, and I’m excited to be hosting this fabulous guest post by agent/author/blogger extraordinaire to help kick it off! Eric’s words are better than my words, so I’m gonna let him take over now to discuss some examples of killer opening pages in diverse YA! (And thank you, of course, to Beth Phelan, mother of #DVPit, for putting this all together!)
Your First Chapter is a Promise to Your Reader: Great Opening Pages in Diverse YA
When it comes to pitch contests on the ol’ social media, and pitching / getting requests from agents in general, a lot of time you’re going to be asked for the first few pages of your manuscript. Maybe a couple of chapters. Hell, some agents are going to want you to paste those first pages in an email.
Chances are, if you’re a querying writer, you’ve already polished these opening pages to perfection, pouring over them again and again.
Which is great, but before I dig into talking about opening pages… make sure the rest of your manuscript is as polished as those early chapters.
Done? Okay. Let’s continue.
Now, everything I’m about to prattle on about here is subjective. Remember that, writers. When it comes to pitching agents and editors, sometimes it isn’t about how good your book is. Sometimes it’s about taste. What that particular agent or editor enjoys reading. So make sure you’re taking your time when doing your research, and don’t take it personally when something just doesn’t gel.
In my opinion though, a great set of first pages, a great first chapter, is one thing and one thing only.
A first chapter is a promise between a book and the reader.
Are you getting ready to read a fantasy novel and explore a lush, imagined world? Is this a contemporary YA, packed full of swoons? Are we going to be scared? Thrilled? Challenged? Those first pages tell your reader what they are in for, and promises them that they can look forward to more in the chapters ahead.
Don’t break your promise.
And no, an unreliable narrator isn’t an example of breaking a promise, friends. You can usually tell when a narrator is messing with you early on. And even if you can’t, you’re promising more than just a tricky storyteller. There’s the world. The people around your character. The tone. The voice. The stakes.
You should be able to establish that in the first chapter. And then, you should be able to keep your promise.
Let’s have a look at a few fantastic examples of diverse YA reads with kick ass opening pages.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
“Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.”
A kid named Vanesa tells me this in the morning before school. She springs out with no warning and blocks my way, her textbook held at her chest like a shield…
I had a hard time finding an excerpt of Meg Medina’s extraordinary book anywhere to paste here, and I’m not about to type up the entire first page (because copyrights), but you can read the sample first chapter on Barnes & Noble here.
What you’ll find here, is that the opening to this book hits you with the conflict immediately. Not only that, you’re instantly hit with the tone of the book.
In these few pages, we learn who Piddy is. Her family. Why this Yaqui thinks of her the way she does. We meet some of her friends. The setting is immediately set, the stakes are immediately dished out, and readers are ready to keep going.
The takeaway? If you can, hit readers with the stakes right away.
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for every much longer. I was in the crowded bazaar of a nearly historical version of Calcutta, where my father had abandoned me.
He hadn’t abandoned me for good—not yet. He’d only gone back to the ship to make ready for the next leg of the journey: twentieth-century New York City. It was at our final destination, however, where he hoped to unmake the mistakes of his past.
Mistakes like me, perhaps.
You can read the full excerpt over on HarperCollins’ official website, but right there, those first few paragraphs, sets the scene for Heidi Heilig’s fantasy novel so, so well.
Boom. In two paragraphs, we learn that we’re in a time travel novel. That we’re in some extraordinary circumstances. And that there is some serious family drama going on. As you read further into the first chapter, you understand immediately what’s at the heart of Heilig’s story… a father who wants to save his wife in the past, the result of which may wipe his daughter from existence.
The takeaway? Establish your genre right away. The world, a place where time travel exists, is presented instantly. And like Medina’s book, the stakes are right there.
The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee
“BEWARE, YE AROMATEUR; LAY YOUR TRAPS OF LOVE,
BUT DO NOT YOURSELF GET CAUGHT.”
– Larkspur, Aromateur, 1698
MOST PEOPLE DON’T know that heartache smells like blueberries. It’s not the only scene, but it’s the main one, and if someone comes to us smelling like blueberry pie, Mother and I turn them away. The heartbroken need time to heal before we can work our magic.
You can read a whole sample of Stacey’s novel over on HarperCollins’ website, here.
There is just so much to digest from that single paragraph right there, but immediately, we know we’re in a world where smell and love are intertwined. In fact, at the end of the first chapter, she wraps it up with “love witches can’t fall in love” and explains the rest of that quote up top.
That if she falls in love, she’ll lose her gifts.
Right away, we know what’s at stake, and what we’re going to see through the novel. Magic. Potions. Elixirs. A challenging choice between one world and another. And if you haven’t read Lee’s beautiful book, let me tell you. She keeps that promise, friends.
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova
Follow our voices, sister.
Tell us the secret of your death.
Resurrection Canto, Book of Cantos
The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.
Earlier that day, my mom hand warned me, pressing a long, red fingernail on the tip of my nose, “Alejandra, don’t go downstairs when the Circle arrives.”
You can read more of the first chapter over on Barnes & Noble’s website, here.
Right away, you know you’re in for something magical and dark when you step into Cordova’s world in Labyrinth Lost. The first few paragraphs sets the scene, and as the chapter moves forward, we see the brujas and brujos dancing to heavy music, as Alejandra’s deceased aunt seems to reanimate. She’s scolded for interrupting the ritual… and this is all within the first few pages. We are fully immersed, and totally gripped.
Zoraida wastes no time making her promise. And neither should you.
Now, I’ve only dished out four examples of awesome openings that make their promise immediately, with authors who throw you into their world quickly, dishing out stakes and characters right away.
What are some of YOUR favorite examples, readers? Share, and help your fellow query-ers.
Eric Smith is an author, blogger, and literary agent currently residing in Richmond. His books include The Geek’s Guide to Dating (Quirk, 2013) and the Inked duology (Bloomsbury). He’s the editor of the upcoming adoption-themed anthology, Welcome Home, due out with Flux in September. He can be found on Twitter at @ericsmithrocks. Learn more about his books and what he does via his website, www.ericsmithrocks.com.
K. L. Hallam said:
A great help Thanks for this. I”m constantly stewing (and overthinking) my first chapter.