A couple years ago I had the opportunity to hear Jennifer A. Nielsen teach a class on writing middle-grade books. During her instruction she shared a little about her book The False Prince and how it made every author’s dream: it got into a bidding war with publishers. Nielsen said what made the publishers so interested in this book was the opening chapter. Like any smart writer I immediately went out and got her book. I read it in about two days (which for me is amazingly fast). It was that good! The story was fresh and kept me turning page after page. However, the whole book is NOT what got Nielsen into a bidding war—it was the first chapter. So I went back and started pin pointing the things that made this chapter so compelling. Without spoiling this book for anyone who hasn’t read it (if not, you’re missing out) I am going to try to give an analysis on some of the things Nielsen does to make a book worthy of a bidding war.
1: Write the story in the correct POV.
Every story is different and not every book should be written in the save point of view. Nielsen chose to write The False Prince in 1stperson. I thought this was a bold move considering the secrets Sage (the main character) keeps from the readers throughout the book—or does he? Reading back through its amazing how many clues Sage give the reader about what is to come in the first few chapters of the book.
2: Start with questions.
The first two sentences immediately start the book by posing questions in the readers mind. “If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.” Who is this? What life are they leading? What life did he leave behind? Did he have a choice? Who forced him into this situation? These are questions that readers take on. Instantly we want to read more because we want answers.
3: Don’t start slow—start with action or suspense.
You’ve probably all heard the saying, start in the middle of a scene. Well…it works! Next the reader finds themselves in a chase scene. Sage has stolen a roast and is being pursued by a meat cleaver wielding butcher. We learn that:
4: Show more character and pose more questions.
When Sage is caught, a nobleman gets him off the hook by paying for the roast. Sage is forced to follow the nobleman to the orphanage where we have a brief conversation with the caretaker, Mrs. Turbeldy. We learn that the nobleman is named Bevin Connor. We also learn that Sage wasn’t stealing this roast just for himself—he is trying to feed the other boys at the orphanage, so he is willing to risk his neck for others. Then the questions start in the readers mind. Who is Bevin Connor? What does he want with an orphan boy? Who is Sage really?
5: Give more information about the main character.
Nielsen chooses to do this by Connor giving an interrogation of Sage (which also poses the question in the readers mind: who is Connor looking for?). Sage is identified as being illiterate, no good with a sword, a thief, and a liar. We also learn that Sage is snarky and has authority issues. As readers, we like this kid!
6: Create more questions and end the chapter on a cliff hanger.
Next Connor tells Sage to get his things. Mrs. Turbeldy says he’s been bought and paid for. You get another hint at Sages character as he alludes to the fact he can’t be owned by anyone. Good, so Sage is a freedom fighter too—all the more reason to like him. When Sage doesn’t come willingly, Connor’s men knock him out. Nielsen ends the chapter with Sage being taken away into the unknown by a complete strange not opposed to violence.
Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award winning author and illustrator. He has published five middle-grade books including the fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. Some of his picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures and Bean’s Dragons, which will be featured in an independent film releasing at the Sundance Film Festival. He has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works full-time as a freelance cover designer and formatter. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his four kiddos and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. You can find more about him & his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com.