Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Feedback, How to Begin? And, the Lovely Carole Estby Dagg

The lovely C.E.D. in her writing shed! Look, it's
really a shed! :)
I am so lucky to have the fabulous Carole Estby Dagg** today, author of the historical middle grade novel, The Year We Were Famous.

The Year We Were Famous tells the true story of Clara Estby and her suffragist mother who, in 1896, left their home in Mica Creek, Washington to walk to New York City to win a bet of $10,000 to save their family farm.

It has been included on the 2012 Amelia Bloomer list for Best Books for Youth with significant feminist content!

Did you hear a similarity in the author's and character's names? That's because Clara was Carole's Great Aunt, and her mother, Helga, Carole's Great Grandmother.

The research Carole did for the book is astonishing, and you can read all about it HERE.

I invited Carole (and all my Class of 2K11 - now Graduates -- peeps) to join me when they can for Friday Feedback, and Carole is kind enough to be popping in to talk about How to Begin.

So, here you go, in Carole's own words:

According to the king in Alice in Wonderland, telling a story is simple:

“Start at the beginning, go to the end, then stop.”

Easy for the king to say.

I must have written at least twenty opening chapters for my first book, starting at different points in the narrative, narrating from different points of view and with different voices. Books for writers offered conflicting advice or advice which conflicted with my memory of how some well-known authors had opened their successful books:

Start at a high point of action and explain how your characters got there later.

Don’t start with high action; let your readers get to know your character first.

Start with conversation.

Don’t start with conversation.

Never start a book or a chapter with your main character waking up.

Never start with the weather.

I gave up on books about writing and instead pulled random books from my shelves in the study to see directly how successful writers had started their books; here’s a sample:

"One hundred thirty-six days before.
The week before left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party."
- Looking for Alaska, by John Green

"It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind."
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

"It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen."
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled...”
Holes, by Louis Sachar

"June 21, 1895
Bombay, India
'Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.'
I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra. A surprisingly pink tongue slithers in and out of a cruel mouth while an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness...”
- A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling

One book starts with a weather cliche, another with conversation. Most introduce the main character in the first three lines, but notable exceptions start with setting. So what are the rules?

Are there any rules? It’s enough to make Schroeder bang his head on the piano.

It hurts to put a doodle draft out in the world for comment, but because Gae is a dear friend, I’ll do it for her. Here’s one take at an opening for my current work in progress, a middle grade historical novel tentatively titled Northward Ho!

*Warning alert: Carole's own questions for Friday Feedback (my usual one's being: does it hook you, why or why not? What works? What doesn't work? But, hey, go with hers ;)*

"What else I should have told you about  my main character? Which details were useful, which were not? Should I have had conversation or interaction with other characters sooner? Too much setting? Any other suggestions?

(You know the rest of the rules. If you want the same feedback, place a brief excerpt in the comments and Carole or I will chime in -- maybe both if you're (un) lucky! ;))

Enjoy Carole's excerpt!:

November, 1934 - Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin

     Trip Johnson dragged a hatchet across the yard toward a pumpkin as big as a pickle barrel. She stumbled over an icy hillock of mud where her mother’s roses had been uprooted to make way for potatoes. She trudged past the skeletons of pole beans clinging to the trellis where sweet peas used to climb.

     Wind howled and tossed the tire swing, slapped the shutters, and whipped her skirt around her knees. It snatched phrases from her twin sisters’s recital duet which escaped through the crack in the parlor window and swirled them into the eddies of wood smoke from a dozen near-by chimneys. If Trip had not been the only unmusical Johnson she could have been inside with her sisters, warm. She would not have to attack that gosh-awful pumpkin like a lumberjack.

     She raised the hatchet over her head and heaved it down with her full weight of seventy-three pounds behind it. The blow reverberated up her arms and clear through her shoulders to her jaws. After several more assaults she finally hacked off a piece light enough to wrestle into the kitchen.


Huge thanks to Carole Dagg for doing Friday Feedback with me today! If you guys need more rules, click on this link HERE to the original Friday Feedback.

*Carole Estby Dagg is the author of The Year We Were Famous, an historical novel based on the true story of a teen and her mother who walked four thousand miles across Victorian America to save the farm and prove women could do it. Under the supervision of a bossy cat, Carole writes in Everett, Washington, and a converted woodshed on San Juan Island.


  1. I love this Carole! I don't know the secret formula to beginnings either, but I do know that you've created a time and place that feels unique and interesting and that immediately I emphasize with this character who is different from her family. I want to know more about her! Beautifully written, expected.

  2. I know, right, Amy?

    I love this post so much (and am happy to be able to say it since I didn't write it). Not only does Carole have a great beginning and provide food for thought as to the whole where to start thing, but she satisfies my desire -- laid out in LAST WEEK's Friday Feedback -- for a gorgeous sentence here or there with this:

    "It snatched phrases from her twin sisters’s recital duet which escaped through the crack in the parlor window and swirled them into the eddies of wood smoke from a dozen near-by chimneys." Yep. What a visual! Not to mention how much these few paragraphs let you get to know her MC.

  3. After I wrote that beginning, I realized I had probably been inspired by another opening I hadn't cited: "Where is Papa going with that ax?" from E.B. White's Charlotte Webb.

  4. I really enjoy how through your writing we learn so much but it doesn't seem deliberate. You don't really tell us when or where or who specifically and yet I have such a clear picture in my mind. (Hmm...I forgot about the November 1934 - WI part...) But either way, in the text there are so many clues in your description that would lead me to imagine 1934 Wisconsin. The garden, the house, the hatchet, the pumpkin, her skirt. I don't think there is too much or not enough of anything. I can feel the storm in the air, too and it seems to match Trip's attitude.

    The only thing my brain struggled with was switching from the idea that the main character named Trip was a girl. When I saw Trip, I immediately thought of a boy, but then the next sentence says "she" so I had to change my thinking. (Which is fine, it just stuck out to me.)

  5. Okay, here's mine! I've shared parts of this story here before, but this is the very beginning of my WIP that Gae has been clamoring to read. I actually liked my other parts, this not so much. It's harder for me to share this because I don't quite think I'm sold on this being the beginning. Maybe I need to reorder these ideas? I keep moving things around but haven't decided on anything yet. Here's what I have for now:

    Girls who go to outrageous parties or girls who are insanely popular or girls who are gorgeous or girls who are in movies or girls who wear short skirts and tight sweaters or girls who look like Britney Spears…or girls who are Britney Spears…those are the girls who kiss multiple guys in one weekend. But what NORMAL girl kisses two guys in one weekend?

    Apparently, me, Nina Anne Whitfield.

    You would think I’d be ecstatic. I should be dancing around my room, twirling in my jammies, clutching my pillow to my heart, gazing at the ceiling, singing a floaty, too-high, la-di-da-dum melody. You would think. But, what you don’t know is that before this weekend I had never even kissed one guy before, let alone two.

    Here’s the biggest problem with kissing two boys in one weekend: I now have two guys to be equally confused about.

    1. Here are my thoughts as I was reading your opening sentence:

      "Where is this sentence going? Did we start right in the middle of one?" "Okay, this is getting a bit much." "Nevermind, it's not too much, it's gone past that point and has hit a new, awesome level instead." "HAH! I LOVE this!"

      So, um, yeah, I really like your opening sentence, once I was done reading it!

      I'm intrigued about what led to that whole situation. Maybe it's the boy reader in me, but I'd rather read about the action and emotions that led up to all of that than about Nina Anne Whitfield being confused about these two boys. In short, I was hooked until I read the last paragraph, and then it sort of fell off for me. But if I cover that one up with my hand, I'm back to hooked!

      I really love your writing style here, though. The long, almost stream-of-consciousness sentences are EXACTLY what I would expect a (teenage?) girl who just kissed two boys over one weekend when she had never kissed any before that to sound like. And the short sentences to bring us back? Wonderful!

      One more quick thing that didn't quite work for me: you use the word "before" twice in the last sentence of your 3rd paragraph. But that'll be fixed in editing; it's not a big issue right now.

      I really like this. Keep writing and give us some more!

  6. Jen, first of all, I LOVE it that you are here. You're one of my new loyals. Yay! :)

    Second of all, I'm not sure how I feel about this opening. I'm trying to check my gut if I wasn't being asked, just reading. The thing is, I LOVE the writing. Period. I love the feeling of it, but what I'm wondering is if it gives a bit too much information to hook us and would be more hooky (hmm, hookery? ;) *wait, coughs*) if instead of telling us she did kiss two boys in one weekend, it's more teasery -- may have kissed two and then hint at whatever led to that, that put her in a position she'd never been in before. Because I'm not sure that having to choose between two boys is the big hook, but rather whatever led to the sudden dual kissing. That's my tentative gut and I'm anxious for Carole and some others to chime in because it's tentative at best. But as for the writing, I think you're good girl. Keep going!

  7. Great post! Beginnings are always the hardest part for me. I've probably written around ten different beginnings for the book I'm editing right now ... and I'm still not satisfied with the beginning I have now. It's funny how there are so many beginning clichés, but they can still work a lot of the time. You just have to do what feels best, I suppose. I love the examples given here. I've always loved the beginnings of A WRINKLE IN TIME, A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, HOLES, etc. :)

  8. I hope that comment made sense (am just drinking my coffee now, er). What I'm saying is *I* think that for me, choosing between the two boys is less curious than already being curious what led her to some totally obviously-out-of-character moment in her life, even though the choice is also part of what interests me.


  9. I'm always a day late and a dollar short!

    Carole, your opening is deeply descriptive and I do believe (IMHO) your writing isn't middle grade, but rather better placed in Women fiction (or Historical women's fiction... I know nothing of the adult market except what I like to read).

    Not to say that MG can't be rich in detail, it's just not so much of it in the first few pages.

    I think for a MG or YA.
    Take the ax, kill the pumpkin - and tell us why it was horrible or perfection as the hook.

    For woman's fiction.
    You can linger and feed us the details of each step. The reader can be seduced by your words and the setting. Each description leads us further into the garden - but adults will appreciate these details more.

    You mentioned the EB White beginning. It grabs our attention and sets us running to the barn, but very fast.

    I pulled out two books in MG to compare.
    The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt - starts with a lonely kitten, abandoned (the heart string). We read on quickly in sympathy.

    Life of Pi, Yann Martel - also begins with gloom and suffering. Again, we read on in sympathy.

    Unwind, Neil Shusterman- first line talks about survival. We read on to find out how to survive.

    But then I look at two women's fiction.
    The Dive from Claussen's Pier, Ann Packer starts with our protag recalling how her boyfriend teases her (several sentences of examples).

    Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden, begins with a recollection in a tea garden. Long paragraphs of description.

    So after my long rambling, I think
    YA/MG - Empathy or survival grab the audience best and fast. They read to learn about life.

    In Women's fiction- Experience and rich detail pull the reader in at a seductive level. They read to reflect on life.

    I think your work is something to be savored.

  10. Hey, all! Thanks for chiming in! I'm on a brief weekend vacation and poor Carole has been trying to do her "job" and chime in but has been unable to get thru on blogger comments. So, here, from Carole, after much ado (as cut and pasted from her email to me):

    Jen comment no. 1: Trip does sound rather boyish, doesn’t it? I’m glad you weren’t confused for long . You’d find out in the next few pages that Trip is a nickname for Terpsichore and her twin sisters are also named for Muses: Calliope(Cally) and Polyhymnia (Polly)

    Jen excerpt: Thanks for sharing your beginning, Jen! Your breathless, run-on sentence conveys a giddy excitement that immediately drew me in. After that, though, I felt like I wanted to know more about the narrator; not that she was ‘normal’ but in what ways she was normal. I wanted to see how she was drawn into the atypical behavior that produced her two-guys giddiness and her confusion. You might try cutting and pasting some of your on-scene sections that describe that weekend closer to the beginning, so your readers can share Nina’s feelings. Just me talking, though.

    A minor point - although first person seems like a natural POV for your story, it does present challenges, like how to introduce the character’s name. I didn’t feel like I needed to know it right away, especially if it interrupts the narrative flow. Let the name come in when it comes in.

    Your writing is strong; you have the pieces to work with. It just might take more playing with the pieces to see what sequence works best. More of your readers are like Nina, not Britney Spears , so you have instant rapport between readers and Nina. Take those readers along on the ride with Nina and let them build up to the feelings Nina has right along with her.

    Bettina, thank you - so true that what works for one age group might not work for another. This is my first MG - I see I better get Trip out of the pumpkin patch and into some empathy-inducing action soon!

  11. Sorry for all your troubles chiming in, Carole! And thank you for hosting FF and to all those who played along and/or commented.

    xo Gae-on-vacation ;)