How thinking about the present helps Sarah Raughley write about the future

Bestselling YA author Sarah Raughley is the judge for The First Page student writing challenge in 2022! She shares advice on how to craft a compelling entry.

Entering the First Page student writing challenge? Sarah Raughley has advice for you!

The Bones of Ruin is a YA novel by Sarah Raughley. (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

Sarah Raughley is a bestselling author of fiction for young adults and an assistant professor of writing at Lakehead University's Orillia, Ont. campus. The fantasy writer has published several books, including The Bones of Ruin, Fate of Flames, Siege of Shadows and Legacy of Light.

This year, Raughley will serve as a judge for CBC's student writing challenge, The First Page. The challenge invites students from grades 7 to 12 to write the first page of a novel set in 2172 in order to imagine how a present-day affair has unfolded in 150 years. Finalists from each category will be selected by a team of middle-grade and YA writers from across Canada.

Students can enter online between Feb. 1 and Feb. 28, 2022. Entries can be 300-400 words in length and exist within any genre. Visit to learn more.

Raughley spoke with Jill Dempsey on Ontario Morning about her writing process and advice for students.

Tell me what you think the challenges are when it comes to drafting that first page. 

I think the biggest challenge will be first coming up with the story because you can't write a first page of a novel without having an idea of what your novel is going to be about. So the students are going to have to have a plot in mind, perhaps characters and world-building before they can put their words to paper. 

How critical is that first page when it comes to hooking the audience and inspiring them to dig a little deeper?

Very critical. And it's so funny how it feels like the tables have turned a little bit. As an author, I put my books out there and I know that if my first page doesn't hook students of that age who I write for, they're going to set it down and say, "Oh, this isn't really for me," or, "I'm not that interested. I'm going to read another book." So you really need to hook your readers from the first page. Just get them interested in the story that you're writing. And it's possible. 

OK, it's possible. But let's talk about the kind of ideas that you can convey in that limited space because you're really just working with 300 to 400 words. 

You can introduce a character, you can introduce the setting, you can introduce the world. If this is set in a fantasy world, a bit of the conflict. There are all kinds of things that you can do in just a space of 300 or 400 words.

Start in the middle of the conflict so you can get right into the action of the story.

And that's why I would suggest that students start in medias res, which is a writing term that means "in the middle of things," "in the middle of the action." Start in the middle of the conflict so you can get right into the action of the story.

What's your process like? 

I usually don't write the first page until I know as much as I can about my story, so I'll have a big document that talks about who the characters are, what the story is about, what the themes are and where I see the story heading. Especially if it's a fantasy novel, you want to have a sense of the world. And when I have a good idea of what the central conflict is in the story, who the character is and what the character wants, then I can write my first page.

What do you know and what can you tell me about that art of futuristic writing? 

Well, futuristic writing is always a reflection of where we are now, in the present. So if we are dealing with all kinds of issues — and we are, in society — from the climate crisis to social injustice to the pandemic, you might want to think, "If we continue along this path, are things going to get better? Are things going to get worse?"

Futuristic writing is always a reflection of where we are now, in the present.

That's sort of how you may want to picture and envision writing a story set in the future. Is it going to be a dystopian future like The Hunger Games, where everything is terrible? Or is it going to be a utopian future where everything is great because we took care of this issue and that issue? I really encourage the students to think about one issue that they're really passionate about and try and imagine where we're going to be decades and decades and decades from now. It'll be really interesting to really imagine where Canadian society might be 150 years from now.

You're judging these submissions. What are you going to be looking for? What's going to make the story, for you, suggest, "This is something I want to keep reading and delving into."

Well, I teach writing, and one thing that I always look at is how to use language. Do they write descriptively? Do they have their own distinctive voice? Are they bold with their ideas? Is it creative? Is it original? But also, just as a reader, is this something that excites me? Is it something that gets my blood pumping and I'm so excited and intrigued by this idea, that I want to turn to that second page? If I want to read on to the second page, then that's a surefire way of knowing that you know you've done the right thing.

How quickly do you know? 

I think it's just like any other reader that picks up a book at a bookstore, you know right away. You read that first page and it hooks you and you're so excited you want to read on.

I'm sure a lot of this is going through your mind as you look at your current work. Is there something that you're currently working on at the moment? 

Oh yes. The Bones of Ruin is a young adult novel. I'm a young adult writer, so I write for this age group, actually. The Bones of Ruin, I like to call it a 19th-century supernatural Hunger Games. 

If I want to read on to the second page, then that's a surefire way of knowing that you know you've done the right thing.

It's about an African tightrope dancer who gets embroiled in this tournament to the death in 19th-century London with other supernatural folks in the city. So that first page is really important in bringing people into that world.

Just to give potential writers out there an idea: how long is this process for you? 

I start just with building the ideas, the characters. That sort of pre-writing process I find takes a lot longer than the actual writing process. So it's hard to judge, but I think from the pre-writing process to writing that first page, for me, it can take a month when I'm really going for it. But keep in mind that I'm writing, you know, an entire series of books that are 300 to 400 pages long, so it may take a little longer than usual.

Sarah Raughley's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Raughley goes to the circus in her fantasy novel, The Bones of Ruin

9 months ago
Duration 2:10
Sarah Raughley explores Victorian London through the eyes of an African tightrope walker in her new novel The Bones of Ruin. Her protagonist Iris is haunted by a past she cannot remember and, in a desperate bid for clues, enters the Tournament of Freaks — a deadly competition for people with supernatural abilities.

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