Monday, September 16, 2013

Writing a Book to Discover Your Book by Jody Casella

Beginning a book is tricky because there are so many possible ways into a story. It doesn't help that we writers hear all the time how important it is to get that beginning right. If we don't hook an editor immediately, she won't read past the first few pages.

The sad truth is that a teen reader probably won't read past the first few sentences.

But you can't worry about these potentially paralyzing thoughts when you start to write a book. With any luck, you've got a cool idea or two. You've got a couple of interesting characters. Maybe (if you are not me) you've prepared a nice, detailed, organized outline. Then there's nothing to do but plunk down in a chair and begin.

When I started the first draft of my novel Thin Space, I thought I was writing about a girl named Maddie who moved into a haunted house. I'd heard about the Celtic belief in thin spaces--places where the veil between our world and the world of the dead is thinner, and I toyed with the idea of sticking one of these thin spaces in Maddie's house.

I don't know if this is totally true, but there's a saying that all stories break down into these two plots:

A stranger comes to town


The hero takes a journey

Maddie's story was clearly "the hero takes a journey" plot. She was moving to a new town, and she would have creepy adventures figuring out if there was a thin space in her house.

My brilliant plan went awry three or four days into the draft when Maddie walked to the bus stop for her first day at her new school and there was a weird, barefoot guy named Marsh waiting for her.

From this point on Marsh basically hijacked the story. Every day I'd try to wrest it away from him and back to Maddie and her haunted house, and every day he'd torment Maddie (and me) with his bizarre walking-around-barefoot quest.

I finished the draft, put it away for a few months, and read it again, with growing nausea and fear about how much work there was still left to do on it. Maddie's story was blah and meandering. The only time I liked her was when she was interacting with Marsh. I lamented about this to anyone who would listen. What was I going to do? How was I going to fix this mess of a first draft? It took my eleven year old daughter to point out the obvious: why not write the book from Marsh's point of view?

"No," I told her. Because that is always my first response to criticism.

But I couldn't help considering that solution. Maybe Thin Space wasn't the hero takes a journey plot after all. Maybe it was a stranger comes to town. Maybe Maddie was the stranger, the catalyst who moves into Marsh's life and sets his story in motion.

I wrote the first line: "Every morning, I walk by Mrs. Hansel's house and plan my break-in."

The story took off from there and I never looked back.

Some writers write outlines before they begin. I, apparently, had to write an entire book.

Favorite first lines

For me, it all comes down to a compelling narrative voice. Right from the very first line that voice draws me in and urges me to follow.


The brilliant dystopian novel Feed by M.T. Anderson:
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

My favorite YA author Meg Rosoff's novel What I Was: "Rule number one: Trust no one."

You could do a study of kick butt first lines by studying Maggie Stiefvater.

The Raven Boys: "Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she'd been told that she would kill her true love."

The Scorpio Races: "It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die."

About the Author

Jody Casella has been writing stories since the age of seven. She majored in creative writing at Rhodes College and started an MFA at the University of Memphis. Then in a moment of fear at the sheer impracticality of being a poet, she quit writing, earned an MA, and started teaching. After a stint working and raising children, she’s grateful to be back writing full-time. Over the past few years she’s amused her neighbors in Ohio by walking around the block barefoot in the snow to research her first YA paranormal mystery, Thin Space.

Website | Twitter | Facebook

About the Book

There’s a fine line between the living and the dead, and Marshall is determined to cross it in this gut-wrenching debut novel.

Ever since the car accident that killed his identical twin brother, Marshall Windsor has been consumed with guilt and crippled by the secrets of that fateful night. He has only one chance to make amends and set things right. He must find a thin space—a mythical point where the barrier between this world and the next is thin enough for a person to step through to the other side.

But when a new girl moves into the neighborhood, into the same house Marsh is sure holds a thin space, she may be the key—or the unraveling of all his secrets.

As they get closer to finding a thin space—and closer to each other—March must decide once and for all how far he’s willing to go to right the wrongs of the living…and the dead.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads


  1. I admire authors who can outline, but I have to discover the story as I write too.

    1. I SO wish I could outline first. But I was the student who had to write my first draft BEFORE I could write my outline. Now I end up having to do extensive revisions. Oh well.

  2. First lines can be that brilliant little hook tucked two pages into the first draft or it could be waiting for discovery once we're willing to let the story take over. Looks like the first line for Thin Spaces was discovered brilliantly.

    1. It's always cool how it happens and always surprising. And somehow it works out differently for every book I write too.

  3. What a cool sounding book! Gonna have to read that one. :) Love the story of how the barefoot guy hijacked the story. That's the joy of being at least a semi-pantser. Go with the flow!!

    In the awesome-Maggie-first-lines vein, there's her first line in LAMENT (well, after the Prologue): "You'll be fine once you throw up," Mom said from the front seat. "You always are."

    1. How did I not know about Lament? You're right. GREAT first line. Thanks for putting that book on my radar!

  4. There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  5. This sounds like a real page-turner. I will definitely be checking it out. Thanks.

  6. To begin with lines could be that splendid small guide tucked two pages into the first draft or it could be sitting tight for disclosure once we're ready to let the story assume control. Resembles the first line for Thin Spaces was revealed splendidly.
    publish your book


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