Studying the first 250 words

Boise State MSS 122 2 crop

It’s contest time here in writing land and that means there’s a lot of pulling of hair and rending of garments great work going on with the first 250 words of each of our middle-grade books. Right? Right! Despite the fact that I’ve been polishing my first 250 for six months, that it’s been through rounds and rounds of edits, WriteOnCon, agent feedback and a serious line edit, I still submitted it to #PitchSlam, got feedback, and proceeded to gut it yet again. Ugh.

In the spirit of learning from the masters, here are the first 250 words from three of my favorite Middle Grade books. I may do some YA/adult books later as well, but I’m writing MG right now, so I’ll stick to that age group for my own sanity. Enjoy!

In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with melt-water splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.

The woods were full of sound: the stream between the rocks, the wind among the needles of the pine branches, the chitter of insects and the cries of small arboreal mammals, as well as the bird-song; and from time to time a stronger gust of wind would make one of the branches of a cedar or a fir move against another and groan like a cello.

It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled; shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the tree-tops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine-cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half-mist and half-rain, that floated downwards rather than fell, making a soft rustling pattern amongst the millions of needles.

There was a narrow path beside the stream, which led from a village—little more than a cluster of herdsmen’s dwellings – at the foot of the valley, to a half-ruined shrine near the glacier at its head, a places where faded silken flags streamed out in the perpetual winds from the high mountains, and offerings of barley-cakes and dried tea were placed by pious villagers. — The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

I love the rich, evocative description and would like to point out that this works as a beginning even though we neither meet the main character no see any action more titillating than the leaves blowing in the wind.

Ethan said, “I hate baseball.”

He said it as he followed his father out of the house, in his uniform and spikes. His jersey read ROOSTERS in curvy red script. On the back it said Ruth’s Fluff’n’Fold.

“I hate it,” he said again, knowing it was cruel. His father was a great lover of baseball.

But Mr. Feld didn’t say anything in reply. He just locked the door, tried the knob, and then put his arm around Ethan’s shoulders. They walked down the muddy path to the driveway and got into Mr. Feld’s Saab station wagon. The car’s name was Skidbladnir, but usually they just called her Skid. She was oranger than anything else within a five-hundred-mile radius of Clam Island, including traffic cones, U-Haul trailers, and a fair number of actual oranges. She was so old that, as she went along, she made squeaking and rattling noises that sounded more like the sounds of a horse buggy than of an automobile. Her gauges and knobs were all labelled in Swedish, which was not a language that either Mr. Feld or Ethan, or for that matter anyone in Ethan’s family, going back twenty generations on both sides, could speak. They rolled, squeaking and rattling, down from the little pink house where they lived, atop a small barren hill at the centre of the island, and headed west, towards Summerland.

“I made three errors in the last game,” Ethan reminded his father, as they drove to pick up Jennifer T. Rideout.–Summerland by Michael Chabon

This one has action and a major helping of Ethan’s voice, which is so full of that great middle-grade annoyance with his father, embarrassment over their weird car, and disdain for baseball. His description gives us a great feel for the setting as well.

It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big.

Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country.

Her mother said that Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country.

She said the really old country had blown up.

I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished an shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.

I had done my duty in the morning, spoken the words I was meant ot speak, and I meant them as I spoke them, and then, when the service was done, I got in my car and I drove, randomly, without a plan, with an hour or so to kill before I met more people I had not seen for years and shook more hands and drank too many cups of tea from the best china. I drove along winding Sussex country roads I only half-remembered… —Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I’ve already argued with more than one person about whether this is even a middle grade book because the narrator is an adult reflecting back. But my son, who was nine when he read it, flew through it, and that makes it middle grade in my estimation, even if it did compete in both grace and beauty with the best adult books I read last year. Gaiman blurs the line between the real world and his fantasy world so well that you can’t pinpoint the exact point where the story departs into fantasy.

What do you think of these “first 250” excerpts? Do they make you want to read more? Because that is the ultimate goal of your first page.