Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Beat It Out: Ninja Red Riding Hood

Today, guest blogger Heather Preusser illustrates how a well-written picture book can be more involved than it's word count would suggest.

While working towards my MFA in grad school, I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Even though I was a fiction writer, I found this insider’s guide to screenwriting eye-opening, especially chapter four on “beating it out.” In this chapter, Snyder defines the 15 different beats of successful movies.
Could this apply to picture book manuscripts? I wondered.
To test it, I pulled one of my new favorites off my bookshelf: Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat. Using each of the beats on the official “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” (a.k.a. the BS2), I deconstructed this fabulous fractured fairy tale:

Beat 1. Opening Image: In the end pages, Little Red walks across a bridge holding a pie. She is shown in profile with her hood covering her head, establishing a foreboding and predatory mood. Our eye follows Red as she moves from left to right, encouraging us to enter the story. The warm colors (soft yellows, peaches, and reds) invite us in as well.

Beat 2. Theme Stated: On the first page, we meet wolf, the protagonist whose will sustains the story’s action. The theme (who is in control – wolf or his prey?) is stated in the text and supported by the illustrations: a rabbit, a turtle, and a preying mantis all triumph over wolf.

Beat 3. Set-Up: We’ve seen wolf repeatedly fail at finding a good meal, so much so he’s now wasting away. We’ve also learned about wolf’s primary character tics: he’s frail (he has a black eye and a prominent scar on page one) yet perseverant.


Beat 4. Catalyst: Deciding huffing and puffing is no longer enough, wolf sneaks into the local dojo to attend classes.

Beat 5. Debate: Will wolf learn the necessary skills to scare up a good meal? After practicing, he can happily march into Act Two feeling equipped.

Beat 6. Break into Two: Wolf leaves the old world where he was victim behind and steps deliberately into an antithetical world, one where he is in charge. This is echoed in the illustrations, which show him as larger-than-life, emerging from the book’s gutter and dominating the spread while a miniature Red looks naively at the reader.

Beat 7. B Story: When wolf takes a shortcut to Grandma’s and discovers her gone, he dresses in her robe, places a flower behind his ear, and unfurls her fan. In bright red lipstick and fake eyelashes, he is the antithesis of wolf, a “new” character we haven’t yet met. This emphasizes the theme of identity.

Beat 8. Fun and Games: Still dressed as Granny, wolf tries to convince Red it’s him – er, her – by explaining his giant eyes, long ears, massive muscles and sharp teeth. This section is lighter in tone.

Beat 9. Midpoint: When wolf jumps “out of bed / to gobble up Red,” we discover she has gone to Ninja school too. Flinging off her hood, she strikes a defensive pose, which takes wolf so much by surprise he’s literally thrown off the page (we only see one paw, the snippet of his tail, and his muzzle in the foreground). Red and wolf grapple and appear evenly matched. This is an “up” beat, or false victory, for wolf.

Beat 10. Bad Guys Close In: And then Gran, who’s come from tai chi, enters the text, shouting, “Don’t you dare harm a hair on her head!” There is no way wolf can beat Red AND Gran; his fall is inevitable.

Beat 11. All Is Lost: The opposite of the midpoint, this is a “down” beat for wolf. Red dodges his next attack, and, after being thrown over her hip, he ends flat on his back. As he struggles to his feet and clutches his arm, there’s a “whiff of death” moment. The broken bits and pieces of Gran’s house also hint at death and destruction.

Beat 12. Dark Night of the Soul: Before wolf skedaddles, Red makes him promise to give up “Red” meat. Wolf consents. He is beaten and he knows it.

Beat 13. Break into Three: As the real Gran offers half her pie, her true identity shines through: she is kind and generous even in the face of a wannabe killer. This gesture allows wolf to discover the best solution: yoga!

Beat 14. Finale: Wolf applies the lessons he’s learned and attends the Downward Dog Center. He is no longer weak mentally or physically. His perseverance pays off and, at last, he truly finds peace.

Beat 15. Final Image: Wolf walks across a bridge, presumably on his way to yoga. Our eye follows him as he moves across the page from left to right, encouraging us to return to the beginning of the story and start again. Cool greens and blues juxtapose with the warm colors in the opening spread, symbolizing how the tension within the story has cooled as well.

Now it’s your turn: take your favorite picture book manuscript – or one of your own manuscripts – and “beat it out”!

Heather Preusser teaches high school English in Colorado. When she’s not teaching, reading or writing, she enjoys telemark skiing, rock climbing and learning ridiculously long German words. She is represented by Janine Le from the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. You can find her on Twitter at @HeatherPreusser.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Successful Platform Building Doesn't Have to Be About You

Building a writing platform can seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Today, guest bloggers Elaine Kiely Kearns and Sylvia Liu talk about how they built a successful platform organically by focusing on helping others.

How can authors and illustrators blog successfully as part of their social media efforts? A year ago, we created Kidlit411.com, a one-stop information shop for writers and illustrators. Since then, we have been named one of The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2015 and The Top 50 Writing Blogs for 2015. We also have a very active community around the site. In this interview, we talk about how we got here.


Sylvia: How did you come up with the idea for Kidlit411?


Elaine:  KidLit411 came about from a need to pool resources from the internet. There are so many great sites out there and the kid lit community was sharing many great links, but there waasn’t one place to find them all. I started making a list of the sites that I would return to again and again to share with my online critique group, the Penguin Posse. Then I thought that perhaps other kid lit people would enjoy the information, too. One of my Penguin Posse critique partners, Sylvia Liu, and I partnered up and KidLit411 was born!


Sylvia: What are the elements of the site that you think helped us connect with the kidlit community and make it successful?


Elaine: I don’t think that we “set out” to build a platform, but we found a need and then attempted to fill it. It was an organic process that evolved over time.


One thing that made our site stand out was the combination of not focusing on authors but also illustrators. Sylvia, as an author-illustrator, wanted to have a site that was welcoming to both. We have art from Caldecott winners to up and coming artists featured on the site. Even though I am not an illustrator, I love the way it looks! It’s aesthetically pleasing to every kind of artist.


We also have weekly interviews with authors and illustrators, geared towards providing advice and inspiration. Many of the interviews include giveaways where we encourage people to share our site, which helped grow our presence. The interviews also promote our fellow creatives, both those who are established and those who are up and coming, a win-win for all.
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Our Weekly 411 email provides all the new links we add each week. People really responded to all of these “extras.” Now we have a KidLit411 Facebook group with over 1,500 members and a KidLit411 Manuscript swap group where you can go and swap manuscripts for a set of “fresh eyes” with other like-minded people. It’s been very successful!


Sylvia: Tell us more about the Facebook group.


Elaine: Having a Facebook group associated with our site has been key in building our community. With many blogs, the comment sections are the place where community is formed. But we have found that a Facebook group provides a more flexible format to have conversations. People ask questions or share links, and friendships are formed. I think some people are part of our Facebook group that don’t even realize we have a website! But they eventually figure it out.


Elaine: How important was it to have information for illustrators included in the site?


Sylvia: Because both of us write picture book manuscripts, we naturally felt that both authors and illustrators are an integral part of the kid lit community. The benefit of adding illustrators to the mix was that we could make the website look nice. I had the idea to present the main pages in a Pinterest-style layout. This lets us showcase illustrators we like on a rotating basis and keeps the site from being static.  (Illustrators: please submit your low-res images to kidlit411 (at) kidlit411 (dot) com to be featured on our front page).


Elaine: Do you feel that it is important for authors/illustrators to create a social media platform, such as a blog or Kidlit411, or do you think that it isn't necessary as a step to publication?


Sylvia: The most important thing for authors and illustrators to do is to focus on their craft and create the best stories and illustrations they can. Creating a platform will help authors and illustrators market their books once they get published, but I don’t think people should create a platform just because they feel they need one.


It’s also hard to just decide to create a successful blog or platform. You have to enjoy doing it, and it has to be an organic process. Elaine and I have figured out that the key is to provide information that other people need or want.  In other words, it’s not about you but what you can do for others.


ELAINE KIELY KEARNS is the founder of KidLit411 and a picture book and middle grade writer. Armed with a master’s degree in Education and working from her home office, she spends her time perusing the internet for golden nuggets of information about children’s writing and creating her own stories. Her blog:www.ekielykearns.com

SYLVIA LIU is a former environmental attorney turned writer-illustrator. She won the 2013 Lee and Low New Voices award and her debut picture book, A MORNING WITH GONG GONG, is scheduled for publication. She is inspired by aliens, cephalopods, bunnies, and pigs who want to fly.  Her portfolio: www.enjoyingplanetearth.com and blog: www.sylvialiuland.com

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Robots Are Humans Too: Bringing Nonhuman Characters To Life

Agents, editors, and readers crave characters that seem true to life… and that goes whether the characters are actually human or not. This week, guest blogger Suzanne van Rooyen tackles humanizing the inhuman. While Suzanne’s post focuses on robots, her insights can help with creating great characters based on animals, aliens, creatures, or even inanimate objects. Happy writing! - Ella

Thanks to a university minor in philosophy, which introduced me to ontological and existential schools of thought, I have become fascinated by the concept of artificial intelligence, particularly in the idea of creating synthetic humans. This fascination hinges on the answers to the following questions: What is it that makes us uniquely human? Can we replicate that?  What happens if or when we do? At what point does a machine become human?

I've always been drawn to robots, particularly androids (robots that resemble humans), in science fiction. In fact, some of my favorite characters from sci-fi blockbusters like Interstellar and sci-fi series like Almost Human and even Extant, have been the robots! But why and how do these machines become likable characters, often eclipsing their human counterparts?

This was one of the biggest challenges I faced when writing I Heart Robot. I needed to bring androids to life in a way that made them seem human while never letting the reader forget they were machines. My process was similar to creating a human character: what are their biggest strengths? What are their biggest weaknesses? What do they want? What do they fear? What makes them vulnerable? The answers to these questions might not even be things the android is inherently aware of – depending on the capabilities of their AI – but as an author, I could show these traits to the reader anyway by putting my androids in situations that garnered sympathy for that character. Getting the reader to feel for a character – even if the android can't feel for themselves – is extremely important!

Another technique to employ is humor. This is used very well in Interstellar to bring TARS and CASE, the onboard robots, to life, and we see it too in Dorian from Almost Human. Humor requires a certain amount of self-awareness, which immediately ups the degree of 'human-ness', but can also be used to humanize the character even when they themselves might not be aware of why they're being funny. Consider Star Trek's Data and his aphorisms, or his adorable yet ill-informed attempts at being human, trying to sneeze for example. These humorous moments engendered sympathy in the viewer for the character and made the audience feel for Data even when he couldn't feel for himself.

Another stand out moment, and one that greatly influenced I Heart Robot, is a scene from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles where the terminator Cameron is imitating a ballerina on TV. Her attempt at dance is witnessed by one of the human characters and it's how that human character reacts to seeing a robot doing ballet that makes the moment so powerful. This was a device I employed in I Heart Robot. My android is a musician and his awareness of human artistry, human creativity, and our ability to self-express when he cannot, ironically shows his humanity.


Bringing non-human characters, in this case – robots, to life boils down to giving them just enough humanity to make them relatable. Giving them a goal, a question they need to answer, a problem they need to solve, or a person/object they want to engage with will provide the necessary personification to make the reader care about the character, and once the reader cares, you've got a living character even if they don't have a heart beat.

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Sweden and is busy making friends with the ghosts of her Viking ancestors. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. When she grows up, she wants to be an elf. Until then, she spends her time (when not writing) wall climbing, buying far too many books, and entertaining her shiba inu, Lego. Her books include The Other Me (Harmony Ink) and I Heart Robot (Month9Books). 





Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It Takes a Community to Raise a Writer (And a writer to shape a nation)

Writing can often be a lonely endeavor -- but it shouldn't be. Today, guest blogger Johnell DeWitt shares her experiences with creating community. 

Moving every two years taught me the importance of community. When we relocated to the States roughly four years ago, I decided to start writing again, this time for children. I had no idea where to begin, so I asked a neighbor whod been recently published. She turned me on to Verla Kays Blueboards (now the SCBWI Blueboards) and told me about SCBWI.


Preferring the anonymity of an online forum, I joined the Blueboards. Poking around the various threads helped me learn the basics, but I also learned that I needed more interaction if I really wanted to progress. Posts about Tara Lazars PiBoIdMo started popping up so I decided to give it a try. I was still too chicken to join SCBWI even though I knew I needed that in-person instruction.

Its funny how a need often heightens ones awareness of possible solutions. As I started interfacing with people on the PiBoIdMo Facebook page, I realized that several of them lived in my area. An incautious thought crept in. Why couldnt we start our own Facebook page to keep each other informed about author events in our neighborhoods? I proposed the idea and received positive responses, unfortunately, no one offered to do it.

The social media scene was foreign territory after living in foreign territory for seven years, so I wasnt sure how to start. After failed attempt after failed attempt, I finally created an operational group page and invited my PiBo friends to join. As members started trickling in, I realized I was surrounded by experienced writers. Another incautious thought crept in. Why couldnt I learn from the writers in my own backyard?

Since my usual cautious nature was already riding the wind, I went ahead and proposed the idea of holding a mini-seminar. Again, the responses were positive. Two talented authors agreed to present to us and we started pulling it together.

Long story short, we hosted our first seminar in a library room we reserved for free. I can barely express the importance of that opportunity. Through this group, I found the courage to join SCBWI, Julie Hedlunds 12x12 and start another writing community, this time in my new home in Central America.

I knew before moving to Central America that there was no SCBWI chapter in the region, but I figured thered be some type of writing community. There sort of was, but not specifically for childrens lit. I was taking a class from Mira Reisberg at the time and she suggested I start an SCBWI chapter in my new home. Excellent advice but how to do it? I started asking questions again. I called SCBWI and then met with expats who knew the local scene. As the names started trickling in, I realized my new writing community would be different.

The country Im in suffers from problems common to emerging economies, not the least of which is a lack of a strong national identity. An under-represented aspect of this problem lies in a dearth of national literature. One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa Thiongo:

A Russian child grows under the influence of his native imaginative literature: a Chinese, a Frenchman, a German or an Englishman first imbibes his national literature before attempting to take in other worlds. That the central taproot of his cultural nourishment should lie deep in his native soil is taken for granted.

Id lived in various parts of Africa and understood the need for books that spoke the local languagein words and culture. Id also lived in Finland and had studied the significance of Finlands epic, The Kalevala. How a simple piece of literature, and the author who compiled it, changed the course of Finnish history is as epic as the story. Why couldnt we do the same?

The writing group we are forming now is still in the beginning phases, but we are already finding talented artists, authors and others excited about creating a thriving childrens literature community. If we succeed, the impact will be far-reaching.

In the few short years Ive been writing, theres no way I could have attempted a step this big without a writing community to guide me. Ive gained many friends and mentors whove graciously shared their talents and helped me build mine. If the rest of society invested in each other the way childrens lit creators do, wed change the world. For now, you are helping me change mine.


Johnell DeWitt blogs with her writing group at Dew Drops of Ink. She has written other posts about the importance of community for Julie Hedlunds blog and for her own

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

How To Write Your Passion

Today guest blogger Pat Tanumihardja encourages you to follow your passion!


When I was a little girl, there was nothing I loved more than sitting in a corner of my room curled up with a good book. Well, actually there was—hanging out in the kitchen with my mom.

As I got older, my love of reading morphed into a love of writing. Stringing words together to make beautiful sentences was pure joy! Along the way, I was helping my mom roll spring rolls and I watched diligently as she cooked my favorite childhood dishes. My biggest triumph came when I baked my first cake solo at 11-years-old.

I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew I loved food and cooking.

Although I didn’t travel a straight path, I’ve finally found a way to combine my two passions, in essence, a way to write my passion.




Finding Your Passion

For me, finding a passion to write about came very naturally. For others, it may take some soul searching. If you land in the latter camp, here are some ideas to define your passion:

  • Think back to your childhood and make a list of your favorite activities and interests. Revisit some of them, including foods and events. The things we loved as a child are probably still the things we love today.
  •  Connect the dots. Search for clues that might help you discover a long running thread that has been connecting everything in your life: your habits, the games you played, the books you read.
  •   Examine your life and see if you’re already doing something that you love. Think about the things you do that make you happy. Talk to friends about what you’re good at.
  •    Explore new avenues of creativity—pick up a new hobby like pottery or tennis. They just might ignite a newfound passion.


Channeling your Passion
People write for many reasons—to make money, to keep a record of their lives (journaling), as  a form of catharsis, self-satisfaction, etc.  

Twelve years ago, after almost a decade working in the arts, I started writing picture books. Two years and a dozen manuscripts later, and without a contract in sight, I switched gears and started freelancing for magazines. It was a hard decision to make but I had to earn a living.

That’s how I ended up writing about food for print and online publications. Immersing myself in the cross-section of food and writing eventually led to a cookbook and a blog, which I still keep up today.

When my son was born, I felt drawn to children’s writing again and I’ve picked it up again seriously in the last year or so. And for some strange reason, all the stories that I’ve been cooking up seem to have a food-related theme! Like writing, it’s become a part of me.

It could happen with just about any passion whether you love dogs, astronomy, or knitting. Writers today have never been so lucky -- there are so many outlets to choose from if you want to write about your passion.

Let’s take the topic of knitting for example.

  • Blog post: Review a new knitting book that features unique, trendy designs that you never thought you’d be able to knit yourself.
  •  Non-fiction article: Profile the owner of a new knitting store in your town that’s cultivating a new generation of knitters.
  • Children’s picture book: A girl has magic knitting needles that allow her to “knit” anything her heart desires.
  •   Novel: Create a main character who’s so shy and timid and she only finds solace in knitting. 

You get what I mean.

You don’t have to stick to only one platform. Pick two or three or more! The possibilities are endless. For me, my writing portfolio evolved quite naturally and food and cooking remained at the very center of it. And it happened over a decade.

My advice is to just take the plunge without any expectations. Above all, do it for yourself and start writing because you want to share your passion with others. When you write about what you’re passionate about, it shows, and your audience will eventually follow.  



Pat Tanumihardja considers herself lucky to be able to write her passion—as a freelance writer, cookbook author and now, a children’s writer. Pat blogs about food and life at picklesandtea.org and can be found on Twitter: @ediblewords.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing About Minorities, for Non-Minorities.

This week, guest blogger Erik Thurman encourages us to write outside our race while avoiding potential landmines.

The publishing world has always been slow to change, especially in recognizing the growing diversity of our readership. For generations in Western society people of color, LGBTQ, women, religious minorities, individuals with disabilities, and others have been exposed to fables of valiant, pale-skinned men who fight for glory and honor, and bring peace and order to the lands they were destined to save. The hero’s trial takes him through lava-filled caverns, treacherous high seas, and even to the heavens, until he is finally rewarded with the token object of his desire.

Oftentimes, minority readers are brought along for the ride as outsiders looking in, waiting for the chance when they can be more than a sidekick (at best), and actually see a hero that embodies them.

In a 2013 study, the Cooperative Children’sBook Center (CCBC) found that 89.5% of children's books featuring humans were about white people.

We should be careful not to place blame solely on publishers. After all, they aren’t the ones producing the manuscripts; nor can they magically conjure them out of nowhere. Oftentimes it’s the writers-- many of whom come from a certain level of privilege that allows them the time to create a body of work-- who are unable to go beyond "writing what they know" to explore a more diverse narrative.

The fear of ‘getting it wrong’ is strong, but does that mean that writers should avoid creating characters outside of their own background? Of course not! Whatever your background, do not be too afraid to write about experiences that not your own. But do look at your manuscripts critically -- and strengthen your work by avoiding some of these common mistakes that people make in their storytelling.

Beware using descriptive words that invoke thoughts of food to describe a non-white person.

.When was the last time you saw a white person's skin described as powdered sugar or a shortbread cookie? Your beautiful Nigerian queen isn’t made of smooth, milk chocolate; just as the hard-as-nails Columbian network supervisor in your urban fantasy isn’t a coffee-tinting beau.  The ethnic Chinese model from Honolulu is not made of honey, nor is the Egyptian office worker in London as sweet as caramel and cinnamon.

Using descriptive food words to describe the color of a person’s skin subtly fetishizes a race, turning skin tone into something that is to be tried, tasted, and consumed.

Don’t add accents for “flavor.”

Every person has their speech patterns – reflecting their history, family background, educational level, and past travels and experiences. Storytellers who try to fake these accents and speech patterns for the sake of differentiating between the characters demonstrate a lack of understanding of the inhabitants of their world. Take the time to appreciate and capture the actual nuances of language; don’t just write what you expect to hear.


Also note: there is no problem with demonstrating someone’s trouble in speaking a language that is not their native tongue, and representing it accurately in your text, as long as it’s clear that their difficulty with one language does not reflect poorly on their overall intelligence. 

Not everyone fits within their society’s bubble.

What are the first things that come to your mind when you think of a South Korean woman in her early 20s?  Your list might include the following—docile, obedient, cute, small, and dainty.

Yet none of these words quite describe one of my best friends in Seoul, Sung-ae. At the age of 18, Sung-ae traveled throughout Africa and the Middle East alone for fifteen months. She spent considerable time living in Damascus, Syria, picking up Arabic before the civil war broke out, and later worked for a Korean tour company in Egypt while living in Maat’i and Alexandria. Now, she’s back in Korea working as an Elementary school teacher for a Christian organization.


Yes, we all internalize particular characteristics of the culture that we grew up in, but rarely does a person fit perfectly into some compartmentalized stereotype. Make your characters nuanced human beings, instead of cardboard cutouts made of preconceived notions. 

Indigenous peoples do not have some sort of mystic connection to nature or the Earth.

We’ve all heard of the story arc in Western literature where the hero—often a white male from a foreign land—meets an indigenous group of people during his quest. The hero quickly befriends the indigenous people, who are practitioners of a long lost magic, and then undergoes a sacred rite of passage so that he may accomplish his goal.


Yes, people have different cultures, values, and behavioral patterns – and you should embrace those. But the idea of the writer giving indigenous peoples magical powers reeks of unconscious atonement for a history of colonialism/imperialism.

If you write about mental illness, don’t so in a way that overshadows all other character development.

Many writers will offset “disadvantages” caused by a disability – physical, mental, emotional, learning, or otherwise -- by bestowing disabled characters with unnatural abilities that are derived from their impairment. These might include telepathic powers for borderline personality disorder, the power to see the dead for the visually-impaired, or possessing a healing touch for the paraplegic.


This becomes a problem when the disabilities become the main personality trait for these characters, dwarfing the other good and bad aspects about these individuals, and thus marginalizing all other character development. Nobody’s existence can be narrowed down to one single defining trait, and to treat a character that way is to shortchange what it means to be human.


Lastly, look for ways to break “the single story.”


During the Axis of Evil 2008 comedy tour, which featured prominent Arab, Persian, and Middle Eastern comedians from all over the world, comedian Ahmed Ahmed was flooded with tweets from fans and critics alike. During an interview, Ahmed recounted one of those messages from a conservative forum--
‘I didn’t know these people [Muslims] laughed.’

Oftentimes, our readers are subjected to a single story to represent an entire group of people—such as in the case of the film American Sniper’s depiction of Iraqis as inherently vile creatures capable of driving drill bits through people’s skulls. These stories serve no other purpose than to indoctrinate a newer generation into the same stereotypes of the past. Fortunately, novels like Kite Runner, with its portrayal of Afghan youth help combat these narratives.

The majority of stereotypes only arise because we keep hearing the same story, packaged differently, 
over and over again, until we internalize them as the story of a group of people. Even providing just one more narrative goes a long way in helping our readers gain a broader perspective of groups of people that are not our own.

I hope that writers can use some of these points to look critically at their work, and use it as a springboard in order to improve representation from people from all backgrounds.

And maybe, by reflecting a world in which they are accurately represented, we can hope to inspire young readers of all backgrounds to pursue a career in writing.

Erik Thurman is a comics journalist and educator who currently calls South Korea, home.
Born in California, USA, his experience traveling throughout his youth has offered him the opportunity to live in three countries, while acquiring an affinity for languages, politics, and foreign affairs.  His comics have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Nib, The Cartoon Picayune, and Reed Magazine,  among other print and digital publications.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nailing Your Opening Sentence


Every once in a while, I see a manuscript that hooks me from the first sentence. Yes, one sentence can make my heart beat faster. And then I read the second sentence, and my stomach can . And then I read the next and the next and the next. And that heady feeling I'm getting all started with one superbly crafted first sentence.


Don't worry about writing this holy grail of a sentence until you've reached the end of your story.. First, a perfect beginning is nothing without a great entire manuscript. Second, most people take time to get a true handle on their stories. This means there's no point fussing over the beginning ... at the beginning. Your first start may not be your last.

But once you've written the end and revised the big-picture items of your draft, it's time to obsess, at least a bit. A great first sentence is one that makes the reader ache for the next. You do that by evoking strong emotion. And you do that through:



What that tone is and what unexpected looks like will depend on the age group and genre you are writing for. However, the unexpected usually reverses conventions – by looking at something normal in a new way, putting something normal in a novel context, or putting something novel in a normal context.

Humorous Picture Book
When I bought my rhinoceros, I didn't really know what I was getting into. - Jon Agee, My Rhinoceros  
Why it works: Sets the tone and the unusual problem in a humorously understated way.

Nonfiction Picture Book
Dolores is a teacher, but her students are too hungry to listen. - Sarah Warren, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers
Why it works: Introduces the main character and gives her an unexpected, yet important and compelling obstacle.

Middle Grade Fantasy
Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped. - Soman Chaini, The School for Good and Evil
Why it works: Introduces the main character, sets the tone, and throws convention out the window in nine simple words.

Contemporary Middle Grade
"Tall," I said.
"No,what do you really want to be when you grow up?" said Molly: - Michael Fry, The Odd Squad. Zero Tolerance.
Why it works: It starts revealing the main character (short, sarcastic), and sets the tongue-in-cheek tone.  Also, sometimes you don’t have to aim for the perfect first sentence.  A group of quick sentences can be just as strong.


Some beginning sentences are compelling because they beg questions, and the only way to get answers is to read more:
  • The rabbits were quite unsuspecting. - Dietlof Reich, The Haunting of Freddy (Book 4)
  • 124 was spiteful. - Toni Morison, Beloved.
  • Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. - Ha Jin, Waiting
  • In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. - John Barth, The End of the Road.
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. - Ian Banks, Crow Road

But what if the first scene does not set up anything unexpected?
Ask yourself if your manuscript starts too early – if you are laying down too much unnecessary “road work” before the story really gets going. Just because you, the author, need to understand the characters and their backstory doesn’t mean the readers need all that information at the get-go. Solution: pick a stronger starting point. But what your start is just fine -- what if you need normal and humdrum in order to create the bedlam that follows?

Perhaps the unexpected thing is the point of view, not the events:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, Murphy 


Perhaps the unexpected is merely throwing convention right in the reader’s face:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Or you can always hook the reader by telling them why they should stick around. Foreshadowing can easily feel trite or heavy-handed if not used with a light touch, but it can also be used to great effect:

“A day and a half ago I killed a man and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.” – Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi (this is a minor cheat: it is the third sentence)

You can also juxtapose the seemingly mundane with what’s about to break loose:

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did end--began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” – Stephen King, IT

Foreshadowing needn't rest in the realm of thrillers and horror, either. Every story has conflict, this technique could work for any genre.

Hopefully, by now I've convinced you that one little sentence can draw a reader in. Now it’s your turn – take a new look at your manuscript and see whether you could make your beginning stronger. And share in the comments below: What are some of your favorite first sentences? Why do they work for you?