So I tried the Writing Workout I suggested last time: I went back to the stack of sample biographies I'd brought home from the library and I studied the opening paragraphs to see how each author set up the tension and/or piqued the reader's interest. In other words, I examined how the authors "say who, when, and where" and "state the problem," as Mem Fox says. Here are several of my favorite openings from those books:
"No one expected such a tiny girl to have a first birthday. In Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1940, life for a baby who weighed just over four pounds at birth was sure to be limited." (34 words)
--from Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman
by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz
"In 1917, some girls dressed their dolls. They played house and hopscotch, jump rope and jacks.
But one little girl wanted more. Elinor Smith wanted to soar." (27 words)
--from Soar, Elinor! by Tami Lewis Brown, illustrated by Francois Roca
"From the time he was young until long after his beard grew white, Charles Darwin loved to collect things. He collected rocks from the English countryside he explored as a boy, coins in the home where he grew up, shells from trips to the sea, and dead bugs, too." (49 words)
-from Darwin by Alice McGinty, illustrated by Mary Azarian
Each of these openings hints at the challenges and/or aspirations of the book's subject while also introducing theme and tone. In each case, it took fewer than fifty words to hook me so that I wanted to know more.
I spent days working on a first line/paragraph that would accomplish the same thing for my manuscript. When I finally had it, so much of the story fell into place. My new opening provided more than a hook; it helped me find the focus I'd been struggling to define. What a Eureka! moment.
In a bit of Synchronicity, yesterday I came across a short article by author-illustrator Lindsay Barrett George on picture book writing in general. When writing picture books, she says:
"Keep these three things in mind:
- You are as good as your first line.
- Something has to happen.
- The character that we meet on the first page cannot be the same character that we leave on the last page."
In my last post, I shared some resources for finding high-quality children's picture books to study, whether you're writing fiction or biography. Since then, I've found three more sites that list recommended books for children and teens (both fiction and nonfiction):
- The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winners, past and present
- NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People (scroll down for links to annual lists since 2000)
- Reading Rockets web page linking to multiple children's awards lists
And for those of you who, like me, are interested in picture book biographies, I suggest you read my friend Bruce Frost's blog, Words Not Taken. He's currently doing a series on the genre.
Only five days to go in this year's Picture Book Marathon!
Hooray for all of you who are heading toward the finish line, especially my good friend (and former student) Cathy Cronin. You can do it!
Writing WorkoutFocusing on First Lines
This is a variation on the Writing Workout I shared last time.
Over at the Pen and Ink blog, Susan Berger recently posted "first lines from first picture books." For today's Writing Workout:
- Read the first lines Susan shares from ten picture books. Which make you want to read more? Why?
- Now find the books in a library or bookstore. Does the rest of the story live up to your expectations?
- Can you apply what you learn from this exercise to your own picture book drafts?