Thursday, April 12, 2012

Key Points

So at the end of last month/into this month, several YAtopians helped out with the 250-word critique workshop. It got me thinking about the important "key moments" in a YA book, particularly when querying agents who request different sample pages. (Some want 5, some want 10, or 50.)
You goal is to catch someone's attention—be it a reader, an agent, or an editor. In my completely personal opinion, I thought I would break it down to what I look for when critiquing and writing, and maybe it'll help some of you out.

First 250 words:
This is the very, very first impression your story is going to make. It needs to be pretty, well-written, but concise because you have very limited words in which to grab someone's attention and hold it. If you have a prologue full of information you think is 'useful', get rid of it. Don't think But it gets interesting around page 5 because I guarantee you, most people aren't going to read that far to find out. Cut all the stuff before where it gets interesting.
Give us your narrator. Give us a brief sense of what they're like. Give us a sense of urgency. Avoid waking up, starting with their typical day of brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, going to school, thinking how normal everything is. Start where something new and unique is happening.
Don't start with the fireworks being set up, start with them being lit.

First 5 Pages:
If someone enjoys your first few paragraphs, they're likely to get through your first chapter. A lot of agents request a sample of five-ish pages. A lot can happen in five pages. Murders, death, love, first meetings, hauntings, fights, apocalypses. Take the first big event in your story, the first real turning point, and make sure you're right there at the five page mark. This moment should somehow have a lasting effect on the rest of the book, be it your narrator meeting a love interest, or an enemy, or anything that will be of importance.
If your narrator is discovering he/she has special powers, something needs to happen within these pages to show it. All the explanation doesn't have to be there, but something needs to be happening that spurs a reader onward while answering some of their questions from the first 250 words.

First 10 Pages:
Like in your first 250 words, the first 5 pages ought to answer some questions, but open up some more. By now, your reader should be invested and settling into your writing style and wanting to get to know your narrator. They should start having more empathy because there's a lot of connection that can be built, even from 5 pages.
By the end of 10 pages, if you're writing a paranormal, dystopic, fantasy, etc sort of story, there should most definitely be a sense of the setting by now. Don't throw paranormal elements into a story 50 pages in. Introduce it early on, even if the narrator isn't fully aware of what's happening. Ditto for narrators transferring to new worlds, or interacting with non-human beings, etc.
Ten pages is your time for get us interested and give us a solid feel for what kind of book we're in for.

First 50 Pages (about ¼ through the story):
Partial requests can be anywhere between 50-100 pages, or thereabouts.
So you've had time to give us a solid sense of world-building, character-building, and some relationships. Now it's time to, pardon my language, fuck it all up!
This is a fantastic time to pick up the snow globe and start shaking it. Upset your narrator's world. Starting really ramping up the conflict, and start making the stakes clear. Don't wait until ¾ of the way through the book to show us what's really at stake. At least allude to it earlier on, so we can feel anxious and worried, and we have ample time to really see the characters struggle against this. Nothing ever needs to be said plainly, but there needs to be a feeling of what could go horribly wrong. (And maybe does!)

Obviously this is just a template, and a rough one, with exceptions.
Try taking one of your books, or your favorite book, and flip open to these pages or thereabouts. See what's happening at those key moments and why it works, or why it doesn't.
As I said, this is totally a personal opinion and one I work with when writing. If I've reached page 50 and not much is happening, I've got to seriously pick up the pace. If I've reached page 100 and things still aren't ramping toward a climax, I know I've got a serious problem and need to rework what I have before continuing onward.

What do you guys think?


  1. This is a great disection of the writing process. I think my openings have improved over time, but they could still do with some major work. I want to slip into backstory telling instead of action and showing. But I'm getting there.

    1. Sharon, I hate making the writing process seem so 'clinical' by breaking it down this way, you know? But I think it really has helped me and now I'm getting to wear I do it without really thinking about it. Openings are such a pain!

  2. This is excellent, thank you. I have the hardest time with openings, especially during a first draft. I'll try to keep these 'key moments' in mind!

    1. Thanks, Daisy. :) I hope some of it comes in handy!

  3. Great post. I love how you mention to ignite the story within those first pages, but not create an explosion...yet.

    1. Thanks! I know some people try to start off right in the middle of the action because that's what a lot of industry peeps suggest. But I don't think they mean, start in the heat of battle or anything. They just need something out of the ordinary occurring to catch their interest.

  4. I loved this and I think my story and writing are exactly in-line with this....the problem is my query has interested no-one! I've re-written it a bazillion times, and many have given tips, which I've added. But as it stands- my query is totally kicking my butt.

    Anyways, sorry to be a downer--great tips :) Thanks for the post!

    1. Hey Amber, I don't pretend to be an expert, but would you like to have me look over your query? ;) Give me an email-- ether(at) and I'd be happy to help.

  5. Replies
    1. You're very welcome! I hope it's useful. :)

  6. Thank you for this. It is very helpful.