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Posts Tagged ‘How to write powerful first pages like a por’

kid-lit writing wisdom

The Kid-Lit Writing Wisdom team is gradually working our way into topics such as submission and marketing. But we feel it’s important to talk about the craft of writing along with the writer’s life first, which will also include the topic of critiques and critique groups. So, it seems the best place to start is the beginning. When I was acquisitions editor for Blue Whale Press, if the first lines of a manuscript didn’t capture me, the story usually didn’t engage me. I always say, if the first lines don’t hook the agent or editor you’ve submitted to, what will make them think they will capture readers?

This month, I asked our wise authors to share thoughts on the importance of powerful first lines along with some tips for writing an outstanding beginning or outstanding first lines. I’m excited to share our many fabulous tips and examples. These tips can also be used for revising your stories’ beginnings, so you get double the treasure with these posts. This is such an important topic that we will have three parts for this topic. You’ll notice that some of our wise authors talk about the ending of the story as much as the beginning. There is good reason for this. In my picture book writing course Art of Arc, I interrupt the lessons on writing beginnings to talk about endings. Following are a few excerpts from Art of Arc to explain why it’s smart to think about endings when writing your beginning. You’ll also find more on the subject of endings in some of the wise-authors’ answers in this post and the two to come.

Excerpts from Art of Arc

“You might think that endings would be the final lesson presented in a course on writing and analyzing picture books, but another common problem that I have found in writing critiques is there is often a disconnect between the beginning of the story and the end. The ending has so much to do with the beginning and the rest of the story that it is important to start thinking about it at the beginning.”

“. . . From the beginning and all the way through the story, the destination is the ending. Therefore, every word, sentence, and scene should relate to the ending. And the ending should relate to the beginning.”

WE HAVE A BONUS!

writing for children webinars and courses
I will give away free access to my webinar HOW TO WRITE POWERFUL FIRST PAGES LIKE A PRO to one lucky winner. To enter for a chance to win, please comment on one of the three posts about writing outstanding beginnings and share the link on Twitter or FB. Please tag me when you share the link, so I can make sure I get your name in the drawing.

Happy Book Birthday

Listen_coverMost of the people in this group are from my groups for 2021 picture book releases: 2021 Word Birds and Twenty One-derful Picture Books. Before I move on, I’d like to congratulate one of our Twenty One-derful group members Gabi Snyder. Her picture book LISTEN, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, will be coming into the world on July 13. Happy Early Birthday baby LISTEN!

Peach and Cream Photo Spring Quote Twitter Post

Also, friends have made me aware that I failed to let the world know about my latest Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy Book: COWBOY TROUBLE. So, I thought this would be a good time to let everyone know it is there and would make an excellent summer reading book. You and your children can read the first three chapters on You Tube (see below). The “cowboy trouble” begins in chapter three. I also share the book trailer for anyone who is interested.

Words of Wisdom

Since, as usual, my answer is the most wordy, I will lead with it.

THE FIRST LINES OF A BOOK ARE THE DOOR TO YOUR STORY. THE WORDS INVITE THE READER TO STEP OVER THE THRESHOLD AND ENTER THE STORY WORLD.

by Alayne Kay Christian

I decided to take the easy way out and pull some excerpts from my picture book writing course Art of Arc. Unfortunately, it ended up being a hard way to go because I struggled to choose just a few words to share from the course. I thought it might be fun to introduce some of the reasons a strong beginning is so important. So here goes. . . .

Have you ever seen carnival barkers in old movies? “Step right up!” they shout to people passing by. They describe attractions. They emphasize variety; advertise novelty, oddity, beauty, challenge, and fun. Their barks are intended to create curiosity, generate excitement, and entice listeners to buy tickets to entertainment. Sometimes, they conduct short shows for free, where they introduce performers and describe acts. Their promises of entertainment are all intended to entice and incite the passersby to come on in!

In the old days, or in old movies, a newspaper boy shouted things like, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Bonnie and Clyde shot dead!” The purpose of this? All to create excitement and curiosity that would entice people to buy an extra edition of the newspaper.

Without the red carpet and fanfare on Oscar night, would the event be nearly as exciting, inviting, or enticing?

In the movie, The Wizard of Oz, would the beginning have been nearly as engaging without the yellow brick road, the fantastic send-off song, and Dorothy’s cheerful dance down the road? Not to mention, the switch from black and white images to color. What if Dorothy had just said, “Okay—I’ll go find the wizard.” and then shuffled along aimlessly in silence through a black and white setting, sans the road? Would we have been as eager to follow her into the story?

The barkers, the newsboys, the red carpet, and the yellow brick road all pave the way for an event, an experience, a journey, an adventure, or whatever it might be, to unfold. The first lines in our books pave the way for our idea/story/plot and our protagonist’s and readers’ journey to unfold. The whole objective of first lines is to capture readers’ attention and make them want more. We want to entice and incite them to come on in, buy into the experience, and commit to taking the journey with our protagonist. This is often referred to as the hook.

A good hook creates questions and curiosity. It makes a promise that says, “This is what the story is about.” It also sets expectations and maybe even evokes emotions. Wow! That’s a lot to accomplish in a picture book page or two. This is true, but writers do it all the time, proving that it can be done. . . .

. . . In picture books, we often incite the reader’s interest with words such as the following, “but,” “until,” “one day,” and we use the three little dots . . . called the ellipsis. Interestingly enough, these words and punctuation that incite the reader to turn the page usually lead to the inciting incident—the event that energizes the story’s progression. This event moves your protagonist into the action of the story. It also pulls him out of his ordinary world into a new world where change can occur—the door to our story.

Why are these words (“but,” “one day,” “until” and so on) or the ellipsis used so frequently? They work to keep the reader reading. How? They create a pause or a moment of silence that gives the reader an opportunity to think, imagine, guess, ask questions, and experience emotions. It makes them stop and pay closer attention. Using these techniques hint at what’s to come, which in turn creates curiosity. Sometimes they are the arrow that points to the heart of the story. Using these techniques are great ways to hook a reader. They all suggest there is something coming, and they create anticipation. It could lead to an answer, reveal a secret, hint at danger, present the unexpected, and so on. All of the above hook the reader. When the reader is hooked, she is pulled into the story far enough that she wants to read more.

I’d love to share more, but we have many great words of wisdom waiting for you, so let’s move on.

HOW DO WE KEEP OUR READERS INTRIGUED AND WANTING MORE?

by Kirsti Call

Richard Peck said: “You’re only as good as your opening line.” How do we keep our readers intrigued and wanting more?

Ask a question. Asking a question gets readers thinking. Not a Box immediately asks: “Why are you sitting in a box?” We want to turn the page to find out the answer. The Day the Babies Crawled Away questions: “Remember the day the babies crawled away?” This piques our interest. We want to know what happened on that fateful day. Did the babies survive? Where did they go?

Take People by Surprise. Mustache Baby declares: “When Baby Billy was born, his family noticed something odd: He had a mustache.” A baby with a mustache? We have to read on. Leonardo the Terrible Monster tells us: “Leonardo was a terrible monster…he couldn’t scare anyone.” A monster who isn’t scary? I can’t wait to turn the page.

Use word play. Being Frank starts with: “Frank was always frank” and Bridget’s Beret is similar: “Bridget was drawn to drawing.” There’s nothing better than the clever use of words to get people wanting more.

Using questions, surprise, wonder, opinion and word play makes the first sentences of our stories irresistible.

FIRST LINES THAT ECHO THROUGHOUT THE STORY—AN EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUE

by Laura Gehl

One of my favorite techniques when I am writing is to use a first line that will be echoed throughout the book.

For example, the first line of Juniper Kai: Super Spy reads, “Juniper Kai was born to be a spy.” This line comes back in the middle, when Juniper is feeling left out: “It didn’t matter if she had nobody to play with. Because Juniper Kai was born to be a spy. And spies work alone.” Then the line comes back a third time at the end: “Juniper Kai was born to be a spy. And spies work alone. Sometimes. But sometimes a spy needs a good co-agent. And Juniper Kai knew she was born to be…a spy-tacular big sister.”

Another example is in I Got a Chicken For My Birthday. Like the title, the first line reads, “I got a chicken for my birthday.” This line is repeated throughout the book: ”I got a chicken for my birthday. And the chicken has a list.” “I got a chicken for my birthday. And now the chicken stole my dog.” The line then comes back at the end. “I got a chicken for my birthday. And it was the Best. Present. Ever.”

The reason I like this technique so much is that you can see your character growing and changing by the way that repeated line is used at the end compared with at the beginning. In Juniper Kai: Super Spy, Juniper goes from being a lonely only child to wondering what secret her parents are hiding, to being an eager big sister. In I Got a Chicken For My Birthday, Ana goes from feeling perplexed (and a bit annoyed) by the strange birthday gift from her grandmother, to even more perplexed (and more annoyed) as the chicken begins recruiting her pets to build something huge in the backyard, to feeling absolutely thrilled (and realizing that her grandmother knew exactly what she was doing all along).

I also love this technique when I see it in other people’s writing! Any book that starts and ends with a similar line tends to leave me smiling and satisfied!

FIRST LINES PROVIDE A PEEK INTO THE WORLD OF THE STORY

by Melissa Stoller

First lines in a picture book set the tone and the mood for the story. Like an invitation that might provide an initial glimpse into the theme of a party, a first line can provide a peek into the world of a story. When I draft the first few lines, I try to give the reader an idea of what will come next, what the character might want, and a little bit about the setting, if possible. Of course, I write, rewrite, revise, and tweak as the story evolves. The first line that I start with is usually not the first line that is printed. Also, when I finish writing the story, I go back to ensure that the ending works with the beginning. I love to have first and last lines that complement each other, that show growth of the main character, and that leave the reader with that special something that makes them want to read the story over and over.

Here are examples of first and last lines from two of my picture books:

SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH

First line: One day, Scarlet found a magic paintbrush and everything changed.

Last line: With her own magic, she painted what she saw in her heart, Scarlet’s masterpiece.

Throughout the story, Scarlet realizes that she wants to rely on her own magical creativity instead of the magic of the paintbrush.

READY, SET, GORILLA!

First lines: Gorilla liked racing his school pals. But most of all, he loved to win . . . at any cost.

Last lines: The friends all lined up. They crouched down. Together, they shouted . . . Ready, Set, GO! Off they raced . . . and everyone was a winner.

Over the course of the story, Gorilla realizes that playing fair, good sportsmanship, and being a good friend make him a winner.

Happy writing and editing as you draft the best first lines for your stories!

FIRST LINES IN EARLY DRAFTS ARE OFTEN A TYPE OF WARM UP WRITING UNTIL YOU FIND THE PERFECT WORDS

by Dawn Babb Prochovnic

The beginning of a story is still very much a draft until I write and then polish the ending. Eventually, I return to the beginning and rework it until I’m satisfied that it aligns with (and is worthy of) the ending I have carefully crafted. Sometimes I discover that the “beginning” is actually several sentences into the story I have written, which means I have to cut some (often many) of my beloved words. To make this process easier on myself, I usually create a document called “darlings I had to cut” that I can copy and paste these tender words into, so I can bare to part with them in the working draft of my story. I rarely, if ever, go back and retrieve these “darlings,” but saving them “just in case,” allows me the creative freedom to vigorously revise, so the story can start right where it needs to, and without all of the unnecessary “throat clearing” that often shows up at the beginning of my earlier drafts.

I will also mention that Richard Peck offered his wisdom on this topic (as it relates to writing novels, but widely applicable), in this 2006 article for The Horn Book: In the Beginning: What Makes a Good Beginning? 

MORE TO COME!

There will be two more posts (July 10 and July 17) on this topic with lots of great information coming from the following wise authors: Vivian Kirkfield, Beth Anderson, Marcie Flinchum Atkins, Pippa Chorley, Ellen Leventhal, Michelle Nott, Rosie Pova, and Rob Sanders. 

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