“This book needs to be read!” Assistant editor, Rachel Abrams, of Harper Collins shared her insight as to how to get an editor to say these very words, at the 2010 SCBWI So Cal Writers Day. The following is her recipe on how to hone your craft and make your writing the very best it can be.
Your opening paragraph needs to…
- Grab the attention of the reader and hook them.
- Be powerful and punchy.
- Set up goals for the rest of the book.
- Establish perspective and voice.
- Introduce your protagonist.
Abrams shared the following three examples of strong opening paragraphs:
1) An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: This has a strong opening because it has a punchy first sentence which also tell us a lot about the main character. We immediately get a sense of the quirky voice of the book. We become aware of the conflict – that the main character has been dumped. Every detail is actually pertinent to the plot, including the bathtub, Archemedies, and the eureka moment (all of which come back later in the story). Everything is carefully planned and well thought out.
2) Gorgeous by Rachel Veil: We get a sense of an authentic teen voice right from the beginning. The setting is established, and the plot is introduced. Abrams was really pulled in by the snappy first sentence “I sold my cell phone to the Devil.”
3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: This book opens with suspense, and immediately the plot is set into motion. Even though it has a somewhat ambiguous feeling you are still sucked into the mystery and the story. It also uses punchy, descriptive, plot driven words.
Finding your voice…
Voice is something that is very difficult to teach. As an editor, Abrams feels like she can’t teach you voice, but she can help you to hone it. Things that will help you to hone your voice include:
- Know your market. Watch what teens watch. Read what they read. Get into your market’s head.
- Find a unique perspective.
- Get to know your characters.
- In regards to historical fiction, know that the issues the characters encounter are similar – parents, friends, relationships. It is the setting that is different.
- For the broadest audience, don’t use swear words.
Effective dialog will…
- Reveal character.
- Increase the pace of the scene/novel.
- Add conflict.
- Establish voice.
- Reveal only limited back story.
- What is not said is often more powerful than what is said.
Dialog pitfalls (to be avoided) are…
- Revealing too much back story (aka: the information dump).
- Characters who blurt out everything.
- Chatty on the nose gabbing.
- Adverbial speech tags – the emotion should be expressed in the dialog itself, which will make the speech tag unnecessary. (This is a personal pet peeve of Abrams’).
- Character development is what Abrams really likes to focus on. In her opinion, plot is secondary to the characters.
- Nothing should feel random or tacked on.
- Detail does not equal development. The details must matter.
- Map out your character arc. Know how your characters will evolve.
- Equip your characters with the tools to help them to get from point A to B and then to point C.
- Know how the traits of your character affect the plot as it evolves.
- Equip your character with motivation and a full set of personality traits.
- Try and keep the number or characters in your book to a minimum.
- Understand why your characters do things. This is about motivation, why do your characters act the way they do?
Lets talk about plot and pacing…
- It is always good to fall back on a three act structure. Act One: Introduce characters, reveal characters, set plot in motion, establish setting. Act Two: This is longer and where the plot develops, the story becomes more complex, and you explore subplots. The act ends with a major event that helps to build to the climax. Act Three: climax and resolution.
- Avoid episodic structure.
- It’s a great idea to at least outline the major set pieces of your book. These are the big scenes that really affect the direction of the plot. Major set pieces are packed with a lot of emotion and are the scenes that your smaller scenes are leading up to.
- Think of your scenes as mini stories with a beginning, middle, and end. There should always be a goal, conflict, and outcome.
- Always push to raise the stakes of the plot!
- If you are stuck in a scene try to throw in something that will raise the stakes. This is a great way to get out of writers block. Remember, you don’t have to keep it. Find out where the boundaries are by going past them.
- There is nothing better than a good wrench in the plan! “A good story is only a good story because bad things happen” – ? What your characters do to get out of the situation is what makes reading the story rewarding.
- Don’t bog down the plot with too much back story.
- The art is in the details. Editors want writing that sparkles. They want writing that will give them chills.
- Dip into you. Look inside at yourself, and how you feel.
- Editors will help you to make lovely sentences.
- Weigh your words. Find the right word.
- Details are a red flag to the reader which tells them to slow down and savor the moment. It tells the reader to pay attention. Therefore, details must be intentional.
- Revealing sentences will tell the reader what they need to know.
- “Fondle the details.” – Nabokov
- Slow down and explore. Use as few words as you can to express as much as you can. A good example of this is the introduction of The Grey (a large horse) in The Graveyard Book. The author describes the horse has being 19 hands long versus using the word enormous. This has more impact.
Why it’s a good idea to get an agent…
- An agent will help you to get a more experience editor for your book.
- They will help your book get seen by more people.
- They are the first filter for you, and will help you revise your book before you send it out.
Rachel Abrams is acquiring and she is looking for…
- Mostly middle grade and young adult books. Also, a few picture books.
- Paranormal and teen romance.
- Middle grade series’.
- Her favorite middle grade gooks are Walk Two Moons, The Wimpy Kid Books.
- Her favorite young adult authors are Libba Bray and E. Lockhart.
- Her favorite picture books include Spoon, Hip Hop Dog, and books that are quirky.
- Editorial pet peeves include clunky dialog, adverbial tags, and underdeveloped characters.
Rachel Abrams is an assistant editor at Harper-Collins Children’s Books. Since joining the company in 2007, she has worked closely with authors Avi, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Chris Lynch, and Rachel Vail, as well as illustrators Brett Helquist, Dave McKean, and Vladimir Radunsky.