Monthly Archives: July 2010

First Lines OR Love at First Sight

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)

Some people call them “hooks”—that all important first line of a book. Imagine a fishing hook with a big, fat juicy worm on the end wriggling like a delicacy. That worm is much more appetizing to a fish swimming by than the metal hook will ever be dangling all by itself–and so will a juicy first line of a book to potential readers cruising the shelves in a bookstore or library.

A fishing rod and worms is how I describe the creation of story hooks when I do my Creative Diary writing workshop with kids. You want to throw that great, delicious hook out there, capture your reader, and then reel them in. As a writer or a librarian or a teacher trying to grab a child with a book, we want our potential reader to get intrigued, to *Get Hooked* and KEEP READING.

So just how important IS that opening first line or first page for Readers and how important are first lines for Writers?

Let’s go to our panel of experts:

Readers First!

Aubri, 15-years-old: “The cover of a book definitely draws me in first, but the first line makes or breaks it. I have to be intrigued, but I also like funny stories like the Junie B. Jones books that start out really funny and scary books where a character might be in prison and something is going to happen to them.”

Shelby, 12-years-old: “A first line makes me want to keep reading. If it’s boring, I’ll stop. I will probably read the whole first page, but unless I like it, I’ll stop reading the book. When I’m browsing the bookshelves, I read the synopsis on the jacket, too. And the Author stuff on the back.”

Milyssa, 16-years-old: “I like good first lines, but it’s more than that. The whole first paragraph has to be great.”

Writers Next! (Clicking on the author’s name will direct you to their website)

VIVIAN VANDE VELDE

“The first line needs to set the stage, giving us a glimpse into when and where the story takes place so we can immediately begin to picture things. Optimally, it should give us a meaningful glimpse at the main character–saying, thinking, doing something relevant to the story. (That is, I don’t think highly of stories that try to grab you with a cheap falsehood, as in: Terrified, Melanie screamed, convinced she was going to die. Of course, no one had ever died from seeing a mouse, but it COULD happen…) It should set the tone, giving us the voice of the character if it’s in 1st person.

And, if possible, hint at the conflict which will be at the heart of the story.

The story where I think I accomplished this most successfully is GHOST OF A HANGED MAN, which starts: “Pa said we were too young to go to the hanging.”

GREG LEITICH SMITH

“The voice has to grab you and make you want to continue and there should be some follow-through in the rest of the novel about the thing(s) that arose in the first line.

In NINJAS, I used, “I knew I was in trouble when I heard the cello,” which lets us know the protag is (a) in trouble and (b) is in some strange situation wherein that trouble is announced via a cello. And the “trouble” itself forms the basis for the main conflict.”

BARBARA O’CONNOR

“First lines set the tone for the story (funny, dramatic, etc). First lines are the front door of the story and should say “come on in”.

My new favorite first line is from The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester coming out the end of August: “Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.”

ANDREA BEATY

“I have a very simple requirement for Line #1. It has to make the reader want to read Line #2!

My favorite first line is from my book, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies.”

“Meanwhile, in space . . .”

ALEX FLINN

I think the first line should give the reader a certain amount of information but also leave the reader with questions.

Nothing to Lose: “I should never have come back to Miami.”

The information in this short line is: The Main Character is in Miami. He left Miami. Now, he’s back. He’s regretting it.

The Questions raised: Why did he leave? Why did he come back? Why does he regret it?

Enough to keep the reader reading on.

UMA KRISHNASWAMI

“I never know my first line until I’m sure of the last. Several first lines often fall off.

The first line of my new middle grade The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum, June 2011) has stayed almost intact from about the 3rd draft.”

“Dolly Singh’s fabulous face floats across the screen of the TV in the family room.”

HEATHER VOGEL FREDERICK

“The former journalist in me always thinks of first lines as the “lead” to a story. When I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I always found that once I got the lead right, the rest of the article flowed from there. It’s like building a house on a solid foundation.

My goal for the first line is to reach out and grab the reader by the lapels and pull them into the story.”

Favorite first line? Still my first-born, from The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed:

“‘Absolutely, positively not!’ roared my father in a voice meant to be heard through the teeth of a Cape Horn gale.”

BARBARA BROOKS WALLACE

“Tell him, Muddle! Tell him we’re not mice!”

The first sentence of The Barrel in the Basement is a first sentence that HAS to be followed by the second – which is even better!

“Pudding gazed with horror at the huge yellow cat who lay on his side daintily probing the mouth of the jar with his paw.”

LAURIE CALKHOVEN

“I often go back and change my opening after I’ve written the end. In Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, my main character thinks in the end that the siege was like one long staring match between the British and the Patriots. I wasn’t happy with my opening, so I went back and decided to open with a staring match:

“I stared into Josiah Henshaw’s red brown eyes and vowed not to blink.”

“I wanted to open with action, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book.”

M. J. AUCH

“Here’s my favorite from a short story called “Witch’s Son”.”

“When Abigail Brewster brought her son, Hugh, back from the dead the first time, he looked all fragile and wispy, like morning mist on the village commons.”

A big thank you to all of our reader and writer experts on the subject of First Lines and Hooks!

Now Go forth! Find a Great Hook Today or Write a Great Hook  – and Fall In Love at First Sight!

Kimberley Griffiths Little’s been juggling book launch parties for The Healing Spell (Scholastic) with her right hand, twirling a handful of new characters with her left while typing her next book for Scholastic with her toes. Throw in a pot of Louisiana gumbo, too many pecan pralines, fishing for the perfect worm . . .and you have a typical day in the life of a writer on deadline.

Should-a-Could-a-Won-an-Award Awards

I don’t know about you but I’ve participated in a few Mock Newbery Discussion Programs and each time, I’m just sure I know who will win the real one. But then, January rolls around and I hear the announcements and I am almost always surprised. Not so much by which books won but more so by which wonderful books didn’t win. I want to tell people about these books – these wonderful gems that somehow escaped the fame and fortune I feel they deserve!!! And lucky me, it’s my turn to blog. So, here you go – past books that, IMHO, deserve(d) something gold and shiny on their covers:

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor

“When she reluctantly places a For Sale ad in the newspaper, Aggie doesn’t know that Kirby and his mom will need a room when their car breaks down on the way to Kirby’s new reform school. Or that Loretta and her parents will arrive in her dad’s plumbing company van on a trip meant to honor the memory of Loretta’s birth mother. Or that Clyde Dover will answer the For Sale ad in such a hurry and move in with his daughter, Willow, looking for a brand-new life to replace the one that was fractured when Willow’s mom left. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that Aggie and her guests find just the friends they need at the shabby motel in the middle of nowhere…”

I am still scratching my head over how Ms. O’Connor, using such clean and simple prose, was able to make me feel and care so deeply about these characters. I don’t usually find myself in tears while reading a MG book, but this was an exception. Touching and true without being maudlin or dramatic.

Shackleton’s Stowaway by Victoria McKernan

This fictionalized account of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-16 Antarctic expedition follows steward Perce Blackborow from the time he stows away on the Endurance through his harrowing experiences in the Antarctic (including the amputation of his toes). Sprinkled throughout the narrative are selections from Blackborow’s pseudo-journal record that chronicles ongoing shipboard routines and the camaraderie among crew, in spite of fractious personalities and grim conditions…”  Booklist

People, people! Where were your heads when you were handing out awards in 2006?I have never read a more gripping, unbelievable tale and it is based on a true story! This book should be a requirement in every Social Studies Explorer unit as well as on every Free reading list (especially for boys) in the U.S. I am not kidding. Masterfully written and incredibly researched. This coming from a person who HATED history class, so you know it’s gotta be good.

Wolf Story by William McCleery

“A young father tells his five-year-old son humorous variations on the theme of a hen escaping the clutches of a wily wolf.”

Hysterical.

That’s all I’m gonna say.

Oh, except that, DARN, it’s out of print. But available online, used, or in fabulous, hilarious audio format.

Elephant Run by Roland Smith

“…as soon as Nick arrives, trouble erupts in this remote Burmese elephant village. Japanese soldiers invade, and Nick’s father is taken prisoner. Nick is stranded on the plantation, forced to work as a servant to the new rulers. As life in the village grows more dangerous for Nick and his young friend, Mya, they plan their daring escape. Setting off on elephant back, they will risk their lives to save Nick’s father and Mya’s brother from a Japanese POW camp…”

Okay, another historical fiction book, I know – and I don’t even consider myself a HF fan (except for the crazy fact that I’ve written two, but, whatever) – this book had it all. Cool setting, gripping tale, great kid-animal relationship, a missing father, war and hostages and characters that leap off the page. Again, where are the award-givers when you need ‘em?

One book that writer friend, Esther Hershenhorn felt was worthy of something shiny:

LITTLE AUDREY by Ruth White

“Based on incidents from her own life and told in the voice of her older sister, Audrey, White offers a heartfelt story of what it’s like to be poor, hungry, and sometimes happy. It’s 1948, and Audrey lives in a Virginia coal-mining camp with her father, who drinks; her mother, who drifts away, if not physically, emotionally; and her sisters, “the three little pigs…” Booklist, starred review

Esther calls it simply “a gem.”

And believe me, Esther knows children’s books.

Finally, a super MG recommended by agent Michael Stearns in this post:

JENNIFER MURDLEY’S TOAD by Bruce Colville

Michael Stearns says, “Though it brims over with heart and serious concerns, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad is a comedy—the kind of book that actually could be described as “madcap,” if that word hadn’t been hollowed out and made hokey through overuse by bad Hollywood copywriters.”

Mr. Stearns, being hilarious himself, can spot good comedy faster than you can kiss a frog and turn into a frog…which is just one of the funny twists that occur in JENNIFER MURDLEY’S TOAD. If I were you, I’d take his word for it.

So there you are – a start to what I’m hoping will be a long list of Should-a-Could-a-Won-an-Award books.

Nominate your own! Vote early and vote often! (Hey, I’m from Chicago, whaddya expect?)

Beverly Patt’s recent MG release, BEST FRIENDS FOREVER: A WWII SCRAPBOOK is actually on this year’s Allen County Mock Newbery AND Mock Sibert Awards lists. She is hoping that her 2009 novel, HAVEN, will one day be considered for a Should-a-Could-a Award. Learn more about Bev and her books at www.beverlypatt.com

Serious About Series

You’re reading a fabulous book, you’ve invested in the characters, in their situations and suddenly, you’re on the very last page and then…it’s over. You want more. It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Book 4: Fat Cat of Underwhere

But it doesn’t always have to end that way. Not if that fabulous book is part of a series.

Middle grade series come in all sorts of varieties.. From intricate plots like Harry Potter to fun and simple reads such as  Diary of a Wimpy Kid. There’s even an  increasing popularity of graphic novels, such as Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell or even hybrids like Bruce Hale’s Underwhere series. You can never be sure when market trends might change.

So, what makes readers love a book so much they want to read the entire series?

“I either need a plot point that keeps me coming back or a character I identify with. Humor’s in there too! “ –Jen K. Blom

“When I’m actually sad the book’s over, that’s how I know right away that I have to have the next book!” -Hilary L. Wagner

“The main character. I love a very strong voice while reading a story, it’s important to stay in tune with the characters main goal and if it’s a good one I’ll follow it all the way.” –Jen Daiker

“It could be the voice, the premise, the protagonist or a combination of all three.” –Amie Borst

“Books set in a different time period or fantasies set in an entirely unique culture that make me want to live in that world!” –Marissa Burt

I’m just beginning the journey as an MG series writer, but I often wonder if other authors started off the same way. I knew once I had the idea for my first book that it just had to be a series. There were too many situations for my main character to overcome in only one book. Yes, she is an accidental troublemaker.

Julep O'Toole: What I Really Want To Do Is Direct

I bribed two fantastic and successful MG series authors to answer some questions I had on my mind. Lucky for me, they settled for chocolate instead of money. 

Did you plan for your first book to become the first of a series?

 Yes, but the credit goes to my editor, Shannon Dean-Smith at Penguin, who encouraged me to write it. She came to me and said she was looking to acquire a series and would I consider writing one? I pitched her Julep O’Toole and we were on our way. -Trudi Trueit author of  Julep O’Toole series and Secrets of a Lab Rat series

Is it challenging for you to carryover certain details, characters and explanations from earlier books without making it seem redundant and boring?

I think there are two tricks. First, keep the explanations short for the reader that already knows everything, but detailed enough for the new reader. Second, avoid info dumps and just pepper in the information.-Barrie Summy, author of I So Don’t Do Mysteries series

What is a good recipe for creating a “hot” MG series?

Relatable characters. I think young readers are looking for characters to spark their souls. But If I had the magic formula, I’d be a mega-selling author!-Trudi

I So Don't Do Makeup by Barrie Summy

How involved do you get with your characters?

When I’m out and about or even when I’m at home with my kids, I’m always wondering what Sherry would make of the situation, how she’d react, what she’d say.-Barrie

For you personally, is it more difficult to write a series or a stand-alone book?

For me, a series is easier than a stand alone, because it takes the pressure off to have to wrap up everything in one neat, tidy bow. It’s incredibly freeing.-Trudi

What advice would you give to writers wanting to write an MG series?

 Choose your characters wisely. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together. -Barrie

 First, remember that a good idea doesn’t always make for a good series. Make sure you have enough material to sustain your work through, at least, five books. Also, every book in your series should be able to stand on its own merits. Finally, and most important, don’t second-guess the marketplace. Write what your heart says must be written. That is, after all, what it’s all about. -Trudi

 Some of our most memorable books from our childhood were book series. For me, it was the Babysitters Club (I so wanted to open my own babysitters club!) and The Boxcar Children (every kid fantasizes about living on their own at some point). You know those are good books when they stay with you into adulthood. I asked readers what some of their favorite childhood series were and this is what they had to say.

Amie Borst: I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series.  There was something about having control over the outcome of the story that made me want to read the books again and again.

Jen K. Blom: The Black Stallion. I was a horse nut and dreamed that every horse I read about (all, curiously enough, black Arabians!!) was mine.

Hilary Wagner: My mother got me the Little House series, something I wouldn’t have picked for my self as a kid, but I quickly got hooked! 

Marissa Burt: I really liked the Mandie books (mysteries set around the turn of the century), by: Lois Leppard. the ones that stood the test of time – that I loved as a kid and still read every year – are L.M. Montgomery’s books.

Mom, There's A Dinosaur In Beeson's Lake

Trudi Trueit:  Judy Blume – changed me, and changed my life. That is powerful storytelling.

I personally love writing a series because it allows me to explore my characters in many different situations that I wouldn’t normally have a chance to do with a stand-alone book. I get to know my characters on a deeper level and I find new characteristics in them that I didn’t necessarily realize or show within the first book.

It’s the same as meeting someone for the first time. You spend more time with that person getting to know them. Wanting to be around them. Becoming friends. That’s how you become so invested in your characters. After awhile your characters feel very real to you. Talking to them, on the other hand, is an entirely different issue.

Just like the readers, I don’t have to say goodbye once I’m done. I can pick up right where I left off and continue with the next dramatic and social disaster that my characters have created.

Although I do have one advantage over the readers—I don’t have to wait a year to see what happens next!

Rose Cooper loves gossip so much that she wrote and illustrated a book all about it, which includes all the juicy secrets and gossipy goodness you can get your hands on. Her upcoming middle-grade humor series, Gossip from the Girls’ Room, A Blogtastic! Novel, will be published by Delacorte/Random House, January 11, 2011. Be sure to snoop out Rose’s website at www.Rose-Cooper.com.