Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guest Post: Anna Staniszewski

The Evolution of an UnFairy Tale Opening

You know what’s hard about writing a sequel? Pretty much everything! I thought writing My Very UnFairy Tale Life was a challenge, but the sequel, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail, was even harder. What I struggled with the most was the opening chapter. Why? Because there’s so much the first chapter of a sequel needs to do:

·         Grab the reader.
·         Re-introduce the characters.
·         Set up the conflict.

Etc, etc, etc.

The last thing you want to do is bore the reader. Alas, that’s exactly what my original opening did. Want proof? At the risk of totally embarrassing myself, here is the original opening page of My Epic Fairy Tale Fail:

You know all that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” stuff? It turns out it’s true. For years Melissa, Trish, and I hadn’t even spoken, and now we were like the Three Musketeers, only with smaller mustaches. As the three of us held a mini-golf tournament in my bedroom, along with my new friend (and fellow adventurer) Jasmine, I couldn’t stop smiling. My life finally felt normal. Well, almost.

     “Would anyone like a snack?” Aunt Evie said, poking her head into my bedroom. She was carrying a plate of cookies shaped like bones and fire hydrants which were clearly not for humans.

     Trish and Melissa both politely shook their heads and went back to practicing their swings, but Jasmine grinned and took one. I expected her to spit it out after one bite, but she just kept munching away as she leaned back on my bed. That was Jasmine. She’d been an adventurer longer than I had and nothing seemed to surprise her. I wondered if I’d ever be like that.

     “Your aunt doesn’t know, does she?” Jasmine asked after Aunt Evie had closed the door.

     “About my ‘secret identity’?” I shook my head. “I’ve wanted to tell her, but Dr. Bradley says I have to wait until the Committee gives me permission. Does your family know?”

     Jasmine grabbed another cookie. “Yeah, my mom was an adventurer years ago.”

     “Really?” said Trish, putting aside her golf club. Her ears always perked up at the mention of anything magic-related. “What happened? Why did she quit?”

     “When she found out she was having me, she thought it was too dangerous. She wasn’t thrilled when the Committee recruited me, but she said it was my choice.”

     I wondered what my parents would have said if they were still around when Anthony had appeared and promised me a life of magic and adventurer. I’d like to think they would have been thrilled, but I had no idea. My parents were pretty much strangers to me. Unless I figured out why they’d disappeared, I guess they’d stay that way.

I realized that the biggest issue with this opening was that I was trying too hard to fill it with information. I was so worried about catching readers up on what had happened in the last book that the humor and energy went right out the window.

Finally, based on a critique partner’s advice, I scrapped the original opening and just try to have fun with it. I decided to go for the James Bond-type opening that I used in the first book. In the first book it was unicorns. In the sequel, we start with mermaids. Here’s the final opening page:

If someone tells you that you’re being sent to a magical mermaid land, take my advice and spend the day at the aquarium instead. Then you can have a nice lunch, feed some dolphins, and not get caught in the middle of a merpeople war.

Mermaids are nothing like the gorgeous girls you see in movies. In reality, they’re bitter creatures who hate the water because it turns their skin pruney. Even though their tails don’t transform into legs, that doesn’t stop them from desperately wanting to live on land so they can spend their days basking in the sun. Which is why the Green Tails and the Blue Tails were fighting over an island the size of a school bus. And why I, Jenny the Adventurer, had been sent to stop them.

To be honest, I wasn’t doing a very good job so far. If I’d been on this mission alone, things probably would have been fine. But my bosses—the all-powerful and all-annoying Committee—didn’t trust me after I’d threatened to quit being an adventurer, so they’d found me a babysitter: Jasmine, the wimpiest girl in the universe.

After this, the fish start flying (literally) and Jenny has to save the day. I had so much fun writing this new opening—instead of focusing on filling readers in, I concentrated on letting Jenny tell the story in her snarky voice. I kept reminding myself that the background info could wait; I just needed to work in enough so readers wouldn’t be confused. Ultimately, I wanted them to enjoy the story from the start.

Now that I’m working on the third book in the series (due out in November) I’ve made sure to keep that same sense of fun in the opening. Of course, writing the third book in a series comes with its own challenges, but I’ll save those for another post. For now, I’m just focusing on telling Jenny’s story in a non-boring way. I don’t think she’d forgive me if I let her story put people to sleep.

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Click on cover for buy links and more info about each book

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston with her husband and their adopted black Labrador, Emma.
When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. Her first novel, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, was released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in November 2011. The sequel, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail, is coming on March 1, 2013. Visit her at www.annastan.com.


  1. Cherie, thank you so much for letting me stop by!

  2. My pleasure, Anna! I really enjoyed seeing how much your first chapter changed and learning more about your writing process.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Some of the best middle grade openings start with telling with voice. That usually hooks me more than dialogue or action, so great start!

  4. Thank you for hosting the lovely Anna. She knows her craft.

  5. Thanks for sharing your two openings, Anna. Great advice here.

  6. Interesting to see the different openings and how much smoother the second is.

  7. Love that you showed us a bit about your process by giving us these two openings. I feel like sometimes as a writer, I need to write the first back-story riddled opening to get it out of my system and free me up to write the true opening.

    Thanks for putting yourself out there and sharing, Anna! Lots of insight here for me. :)

  8. Great to hear some first hand advice like this! Speaking of the difficulty of opening second books, did you see Zoe Marriott's recent blog post? She's thinking of doing a "When last we saw them..." style synopsis for readers who want an update before reading the first chapter of book 2.