You only get one shot with a teen reader! You’ve got to grab your reader from the first page or it’s over! Author Rachel Cohn spoke at the 2011 SCBWI Writer’s Day in Southern California and shared her insight on why it’s so important to make a stellar first impression!
The Importance of First Impressions:
- First impressions are really important when it comes to teen readers.
- You need to get it right from the first page!
- Don’t give your reader a chance to walk away.
- Characters should interact and come alive!
- There’s a common joke with YA writers that we are just as literary as adult writers we just do it in half the time. Meaning, we don’t spend 50 pages being pretty and flowery with language and setting things up. We jump in right away!
- Give a teen the opening of your book and see what they think.
- Think about your first days of high school and how that first impression of you stuck. It’s the same with a book.
- Beware of swears on the first page of your book. This could be a deterrent for some readers. However, Cohn didn’t take out the swears on the first page of Nick and Nora. She didn’t want to give a false impression of what the book was about.
- Check out Cohn’s List of: Five Essentials for Page One
Follow the Instincts and Authenticity of Teen Life:
- Everything for teens is a new experience. They are feeling things for the first time. If you pull it off it will feel honest.
- Don’t “Parent” your characters. Authors have an instinct to tell their characters “Don’t do that.” And then they make “better” choices for their characters. RESIST this urge! Your character’s don’t have that insight and they need to make these mistakes. Follow the mantra that every time you have an instinct to tell your character to not do something, do the opposite, have them do it right away!
- Everything feels so big to a teen. It’s epic. It’s biblical!
- Don’t dismiss something because you (as an adult) think something is too petty. Those things can be really important in teen life.
Tips on Writing Your First Chapter:
- Many authors find that they actually write their first chapter at the end, after finishing the book. Because now they finally know what they need to set up in the first chapter. And their original first chapter becomes chapter #2.
- Beware of hiding behind voice and not dealing with world and conflict.
- You need a hook on your first page. What is it that will get your reader to turn the page?
- Cohn just sold a 4-book deal on a Sci-Fi Series.
- Copy editors are meant to tell you how you’ve mangled the English language.
- Cohn writes in and is drawn to 1st person.
- Cohn got an agent within 6 months of submitting to agents, but it took 7 years to sell her first book.
- She was often told her protags were too whinny. Then she decided to write a book about the whiniest person she could, and that was her first book.
The Process of Writing “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” and having a Writing Partner:
- She and David Levithan each wrote alternating chapters with different characters.
- They didn’t plan much. They wanted to keep the spontaneity.
- There was very little discussion about the book. They would each pick up where the other left off.
- TRUST! There was lots of trust in the collaboration. You are sharing your characters.
- You need to be on the same page from the beginning.
- They don’t use an outline.
Rachel Cohn is a New York Times bestselling Young Adult author. Her titles include: Gingerbread, Ver LeFreak, You Know Where to Find Me, Cupcake, Shrimp and Pop Princess. She has also co-authored with David Levithan the very popular books, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a successful movie released by Sony Pictures. Rachel’s books have been “Best of the Year” selections by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. The American Library Association has also named her books to the Best Books for Young Adults and Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list.