Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"You Are as Good as Your First Line"

Over the last two weeks I learned (again) what a good first line can do for you. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm working on a picture book biography. While researching the genre, I came across an interesting article by award-winning biographer James Cross Giblin. In it, he speaks of the importance of finding "anecdotes that bring the subject to life in ways that can be appreciated by younger as well as older readers." I do have several such anecdotes about my subject, but I've been having a hard time arranging them into a story with conflict/tension that rises to a climax. My draft also lacked a well-defined focus or theme.

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."
    As I learned these past two weeks, this advice is helpful for both fiction picture books and picture book biographies. (I think it applies to novels, too!) If you'd like to prove it to yourself, try the Writing Workout below.

    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): 
    I also came across a book that both teachers and nonfiction writers should find helpful: Picture That! from Mendel to Normandy: Picture Books and Ideas, Curriculum and Connections--For 'Tweens and Teens by Sharron L. McElmeel

    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 Workout
    Focusing 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:
    1. Read the first lines Susan shares from ten picture books. Which make you want to read more? Why?
    2. Now find the books in a library or bookstore. Does the rest of the story live up to your expectations?
    3. Can you apply what you learn from this exercise to your own picture book drafts?
    By the way, if you're a novelist, at the end of Susan's blog post you'll find links to posts containing the first lines of novels, too.

    Happy Writing!


    Bruce Frost said...

    Great examples, Carmela! I think it's also important to note that the pb bio should never lose track of what it sets up in those first few words. It seems like the best ones even echo it throughout. Congratulations on your Eureka moment. And thanks for the mention.

    Carmela Martino said...

    You're so right, Bruce. I didn't have time to go into that in the post, but that's one of the reasons I loved the books I mentioned as examples, they did live up to their openings.

    Tami Brown said...

    Thanks so much for mentioning SOAR Carmela! I think you're right on target about what the opening of a picture book bio must accomplish and there's no better way to learn than by studying lots of great picture book biographies. Wilma Unlimited was a BIG inspiration to me.

    Also Leda Schubert gave me a great piece of advice- don't be satisfied with your opening until it feels perfect because you'll have to read that line again and again and again in school visits.

    Donna said...

    Fabulous post, Carmela!

    I've also studied openings of countless picture book biographies and couldn't agree more about the value of such analysis. You've chosen several amazing examples to share.

    Thanks also for the recommended sites. I'll check them out.

    Susan B James said...

    I loved the first lines you quoted. I have been wanting to do a biographical short story for The Los Angeles Times. They have a need for material for President's day and Black History month. I couldn't figure out how to start. You have given me the impetus I need to research and believe I can make the material relevant to a child

    The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

    Thank you so much for mentioning Pen and Ink as a resource. We consider it a great honor. Our latest post is Hilde's on Revision

    Carmela Martino said...

    Thanks for your comments, Tami, Donna, and Susan, and the Pen and Ink team. Good luck with your research and writing, Donna and Susan.