There are plotters and pantsers among mystery writers — plotters being the authors who work out the plot in detail (often using some form of software to keep it all together or, like Jennifer McMahon, colorful “stickies” on a work board — she describes this as “Doing some brainstorming for a brand new story. This is always such a magical time — anything seems possible”), and pantsers being those who like to work “from the seat of the pants.” If you start with the braid of three components that I mentioned in the earlier post, you can go in either of these directions. You have a character (including name and age), something that the character wishes to change, and a creepy or otherwise mysterious situation.
Although my advance plotting may not be detailed, I generally picture half a dozen situations that will come up during the progress of the book, just because I’m already interested in them! What I’ve discovered, though, is that writing the first chapter will shape all of those plans — because the first chapter acts as a foundation for what’s coming next, and like a physical structure, it’s all going to have to balance and fit together. We are all culturally trained to recognize “story,” so that first chapter creates expectations in the reader. The book, in turn, will recognize those expectations and meet them, either fulfilling them or pushing against them (see the thriller authors who focus on “surprise”).
Lauren Myracle’s YA thriller SHINE pushed chapter 1 into a defiant exclamation from Cat Robinson, directly to God — and when she received a sort of response, she admitted: “It scared me, to tell the truth. It also fanned the flames of my rage. I lifted up my chin and said, ‘Good.'” Experienced readers know Cat’s upcoming situations will have a lot to do with her willingness to be angry, even with God, and with her decision to act in spite of being scared. The heart of the book may turn on the plot — but the reason readers will stick with Cat is, they are already applauding her courage.
Libby Sternberg’s THE CASE AGAINST MY BROTHER, a historical YA detection novel, begins with orphaned Carl Matuski on the run from a police officer. “What would I say when he asked why I was out and about so late? I had to have an excuse — why hadn’t I though of that? What was the matter with me? Panic crawled up my chest and knotted my thoughts. If Adam were here, he’d know what to say.” The crises in this book feed on the links between Carl and his brother Adam, which involves the crime that Carl struggles to solve.
And for Sophie St. Pierre in Michael D. Beil’s third Red Blazer Girls mystery, THE SECRET CELLAR, a chance encounter with a fortune teller lays out the mystery and coded suspense ahead for the New York City schoolgirls. Chapter 1, again!
That’s great news for the writer, because later on, getting temporarily stuck can often be eased by re-reading that first chapter and noticing details of how the manuscript began.
A few other important guidelines for beginning to write a YA mystery come from 22-year-old Shannon A. Thompson as she prepares for the May release of her second (!) YA novel, MINUTES BEFORE SUNSET: Expect young adult fiction to be read by people as young as age 10 — so (1) language of the mystery is usually very direct and clear, (2) characters “don’t have everything figured out” — Thompson says, “When I read YA, I never expect the character to be all that capable. Instead, I expect them to learn throughout the novel and possibly grow (not always) because that’s how real people work, and I find believability in characters when they have human faults” — and (3) plot should meet the general expectations of what’s emotionally appropriate for YA readers, including that blushing 10-year-old who may enjoy a misty notion of girl-meets-boy but isn’t there for graphic details about sexuality — not in a YA mystery anyway, even if it sometimes unfortunately happens in real life. (For Thompson’s full version, check here.)
Next post: Navigating the middle of writing a YA mystery. Of course, that’s the longest part of the process! Tips and encouragement to follow.
PS: A little scrap more: In my 2008 mystery THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, chapter 1 included the discovery that Molly can’t tell even her mother about the nightmares that wake her. Why not? That small detail became the center of the plot (and characters). I really love writing chapter 1 …