Category Archives: Writing

Hook Your Readers at Hello: Part 4

Confession and Denial

They say confession is good for the soul. Turns out it’s also a good way to begin a book. And it’s not bad to begin with its polar opposite–a huge denial. Take a look at how these characters bared their souls to the reader right from the start and had me hooked.

Suggested writing exercise: Write a confession or denial from your character’s point of view. See if it would make a great beginning.

FC9780152024888I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont 

One day my mama caught me paintin’ pictures on the floor and the ceiling and the walls and the curtains and the door, and I heard my mama holler like I never did before …

 

9780763655990This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

This hat is not mine.

I just stole it.

 

FC9780545477116The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was just such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago. Be warned, however, this is no Story of a Bad Boy, no What Katy Did. If strong ideas and action offend you, read no more.

FC9780802723932A Whole Lot of Lucky by Danette Haworth

 I didn’t do it.

I am innocent.

I know convicts say that when they’re guilty, but I’m telling you the truth. At 3:05 today, I didn’t mean to push Amanda on her bike so hard that she sailed off the curb and fell splat on the road in the pickup line after school. Thank God Mrs. McCrory had just paid the garage to tune up her Honda. That van stops on a dime now (and hardly even came close to hitting Amanda).

FC9781442467774-1Poached by Stuart Gibbs

I would never have been accused of stealing the koala if Vance Jessup hadn’t made me drop a human arm in the shark tank.

 

FC9780525426523Dangerous Deception by Peg Kehret

I only intended to help two children who were hungry and had no money for food. That’s an admirable goal for a sixth-grade girl, isn’t it? You can’t get in trouble for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Right?

Wrong! I may have had noble intentions, but I still ended up causing a car crash, being abducted by a thug, and smuggling a scared cat on a city bus by sticking him inside my T-shirt, a maneuver I do not recommend unless you’re wearing a steel undershirt.

FC9780595269525Crosses by Shelly Stoehr

“We cut ourselves regularly. Not by accident, we do it purposely—and regularly—because physical pain is comforting, and because now it has become a habit. Like the drugs. These are, in fact, the two main things Katie and I have in common. They are how we met.” This was my diary entry on November fourth, 1985.

FC9781250060006Shattering Glass by Gale Giles

Simon Glass was easy to hate. I never knew exactly why, there was so much to pick from. I guess, really we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him.

 

Absolutely, Positively Not by David LarochelleFC9780439591096

Everybody has at least one ugly secret, and mine is as ugly as they come. I square dance. With my mother.

 

FC9780375842498Confessions of a Serial Kisser by Wendelin Van Draanen

 My name is Evangeline Bianca Logan, and I am a serial kisser.

 

 

Ripple by Mandy Hubbard

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The first boy I ever loved, Steven Goode, was really into cars. He received a junky ’72 Chevelle for his sixteenth birthday and spent six months rebuilding it. Everyone in school knew about it because Steven worked on it during shop class, and half the guys at Cedar Cove helped him, wrenching and sanding and polishing until every piece was as good as new.

After it was complete, Steven cruised up and down the streets near the boardwalk, one arm hanging out the window, that adorable lopsided grin never leaving his face.

Then I killed him. I drowned him in the ocean just a few hundred yards from my own sweet-sixteen party.

FC9781416913184Two-Way Street by Lauren Barnholdt

 Day One, 8:07 a.m.

I’m a traitor to my generation. Seriously. All we hear about these days is being strong women and standing up for ourselves, and now look what I’ve done. I should totally be one of those true life stories in Seventeen. “I Built My Life Around a Boy! And Now I Regret It!”

FC9780763663322Getting Over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald

You have to understand: I’ve been madly, hopelessly, tragically in love with Garrett Delaney for two years now—ever since the fateful day when I looked up from my list of the Top Ten Couples of All Time and saw him sauntering into the local coffeehouse.

FC9780142420928Chime by Franny Billingsly

I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

 

 

FC9781423152880Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I am a coward.

I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers–and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward…

Confession of my own: I never thought to start a book with a confession until I started this post. Halfway through, I took a break, and changed the beginning of a picture book I’d been revising for months to a quasi confession. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

Next up: Start your story by stating a problem.

 


Hook Your Reader at Hello: Part 2

Continuing my series on beginnings, here’s another way (below) to hook a reader from your first words. All of these books are great. And I love how these authors are able to convey voice, tone, and story with so few words.

Have you written a book that begins with any of these forms? If so, feel free to post about your own work or others in the comments section.

 

START WITH A JOURNAL, LETTER, TEXT, OR EMAIL

 

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Memoirs of a Goldfish by Devin Scillian, illustrated by Tim Bowers 

Day One

I swam around my bowl

Day Two

I swam around my bowl. Twice.

Day Three

I swam around my bowl.

I thought about taking a nap.

But fish don’t sleep.

So I swam around my bowl.

 

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I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff, illustrated by David Catrow 

Dear Mom,

I know you don’t think I should have Mikey Gulligan’s baby iguana when he moves, but here’s why I should. If I don’t take it, he goes to Stinky and Stinky’s dog, Lurch, will eat it.

You don’t want that to happen, do you?

Signed,

Your sensitive son,

Alex

 

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Finding Ruby Starling by Karen Rivers

FROM: Ruth Quayle iamruthquayle@gmail.com

TO: Ruby Starling starling_girl@mail.com

Dear Ruby Starling,

I know no one starts off email messages with “dear,” but this is more important then most email messages. It may even be The Most Important Email Message Of Our Time! ALL CAPS IMPORTANT!

 

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Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

 12th Day of September

I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.

 

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Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

    January 1

Dear Leo,

I love beginnings. If I were in charge of calendars, every day would be January 1.

 

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Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle

Sunday, August 29

HOPES FOR HIGH SCHOOL

1. Gina confesses she’s madly in love with me.

2. Dad teaches me to drive and buys me a Land Rover.

3. I’m the first freshman ever voted homecoming king.

REALISTIC HOPES FOR HIGH SCHOOL

1. Gina doesn’t totally blow me off.

2. Dad lets me sit in the front seat of his car.

3. I don’t get thrown into a Dumpster.

 

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Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser

Dear Mom,

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. I just want you to know there’s nothing you could have done to stop this.

 

9781451696196

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

August 25, 1991

Dear friend,

I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that.

 

9781606843918

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kill You Last by Todd Strasser

A TEXT SHOWED UP … from Gabriel: Thx 4 inviting me 2 the party. W2 meet again? 121?

That caught me by surprise. I could only assume that the quick kiss I’d given him after the party had smoothed out the earlier rough spots. It was flattering to think that he still liked me, but then I thought about the warnings both Whit and Roman had given me about him. I was thinking about how to answer his text when an e-mail popped up: I like you, Shelby Sloan. If I have to kill you, I’ll kill you last.

 

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This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith 

From GDL824@yahoo.com

Sent: Thursday, March 7, 2013 10:18 PM

To: EONeill22@hotmail.com

Subject: (no subject)

Hey, we’re running pretty behind here. Any chance you could walk Wilbur for me tonight?

From EONeill22@hotmail.com

Sent: Thursday, March 7, 2013 10:33 PM

To: EONeill22@hotmail.com

Subject: Re: (no subject)

I think you have the wrong e-mail address. But since I’m a dog owner too, and I don’t want poor Wilbur to be stranded, I thought I’d write back and let you know …

NEXT UP: START WITH A BLOG, NEWSPAPER ARTICLE, SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT, SCREENPLAY, TRANSCRIPT, BOOK WITHIN A BOOK, GLOSSARY, ETC.

 


Hook Your Reader At Hello

The new year has gotten off to a slow start for me, but I’m finally back with a series of blog posts on how to hook your reader from those first few lines.

I’ve read all kinds of “rules” about first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages. And, not surprisingly, many contradict each other.

We hear a lot about how not to start your stories: no waking up in the morning, no dreams or nightmares, no looking in the mirror, no weather, no “My name is …”, no dialogue, etc. Sometimes these can work but not very often. (See Alvin Ho below. Identifying himself by name works because it tells us his ethnicity, which is important to both the list and the story. Would it work if his name were Alvin Smith? Probably not. Same with Phineas L. MacGuire, another unusual name for a kid.)

We also hear a lot of advice about starting in scene. Yet, I recently read somewhere that when writing in first person it’s best to start with narrative to get a feel for the main character’s voice. Seems like good advice. But, of course, it depends on the narrative.

Another common suggestion is to start with a big hook. This sometimes gets misinterpreted. A hook doesn’t have to be a death, a gunshot, a car accident, etc. Beginning this way can sometimes result in a lessening of tension as the chapter goes on, much like a balloon releasing air. In addition, since we haven’t been introduced to the main character yet, the emotion often doesn’t come across because we haven’t had a chance to develop empathy. Again, there are exceptions.

The two best pieces of advice I’ve heard about beginnings are this: let your readers know they are in capable hands and create enough interest that will make readers want to read on. So how do we do this?

A while ago, I did a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators workshop on starting strong. I spent several months in the bookstore and online looking at first lines. After a while, I noticed the beginnings that drew me in fell into specific categories. Since then I’ve become addicted to examining and analyzing first lines.

So, for the next several posts, I’ll talk about different techniques that PB, MG, and YA authors used to hook me right from the start. The first is one of my favorites: starting with a list. The list can be funny, sarcastic, informative, etc. But no matter what, it must draw the reader into the story. Also, notice in the examples below that whether there are three items or ten items, the humor, tension, or emotion escalates as the list goes on, and the final entry gives a bit of a punch and/or clue that lets you know what type of story you’re in for.

If you’ve written a book that starts with a list or know of any others that use the technique, feel free to add it in the comments section. In the meantime, here are twelve examples I love:

NUMBER 1: START WITH A LIST

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Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin

March 20
Mom says there are three things I should always remember:
1. The earth gives us everything we need.
2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth.
3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.

 

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Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look

The first thing you should know about me is that my name is Alvin Ho.

I am afraid of many things.
Elevators.
Tunnels.
Bridges.
Airplanes.
Thunder.
Substitute teachers.
Kimchi.

 

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 Phineas L. MacGuire Gets Cooking by Frances O’Roark Dowell

My name is Phineas L. MacGuire. A few people call me Phineas, but most people call me Mac. Yesterday, when I was riding the bus to school, I came up with a bunch of cool things the L in my name could stand for. My list included:

1. Lithosphere (the outmost shell of a rocky planet)

2. Lunar Eclipse

3. Light-Year

4. Labrador Whisperer

Unfortunately, the L in my name does not stand for any of those things. It stands for Listerman, which was, like, my mom’s great-aunt Tulip’s last name or something. My mom is very big on family traditions, but even she’s not allowed to call me Listerman.

 

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The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas

Dear Judge Henry,

I will tell you three things right now.

Number one: I’m almost twelve years old. I do not want to go to prison, even it it’s a prison for kids.

Number two: Nobody calls me Aurora Dawn Bauer, not even my grandma, and she’s the most legal person I know. Everyone calls me Daisy.

Number three: Your face looks like squirrels flopped their tails where your eyebrows should be. I can’t tell if your eyes ever laugh, but you were all business when you told me to write this, and–

 

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Rules by Cynthia Lord

RULES FOR DAVID

Chew with your mouth closed

Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).

If someone says “hi,” you say “hi” back.

When you want to get out of answering something distract the questioner with another question.

Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.

If the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over)!

Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you.

No toys in the fish tank.

 

9781416971702

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Words.

I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.

Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.

Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.

Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.

Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.

 

9780062118486

The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy, Illus. by Todd Harris

THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT OUTLAWS

Outlaws have too many feathers in their hats.

Outlaws are allergic to seafood.

Outlaws never forget to floss.

Oh, and outlaws are people who are hunted down because they are accused of terrible crimes.

 

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If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where’s My Prince by Melissa Kantor

Cinderella                               Me

dead mother                        dead mother

wicked stepmother            wicked stepmother

evils stepsisters (2)            evil stepsisters (2)

friendless                              friendless

 

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Deadly Cool by Gemma Halliday

There are three things you never want to find in your boyfriend’s locker: a sweaty jockstrap, a D minus on last week’s history test, and an empty condom wrapper.

 

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Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers

Imagine four years
Four years, two suicides, one death, two rapes, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars—every day, a turf war—six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.

 

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

It’s the first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.

 

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Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with that statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every street corner. And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.

NEXT UP: START WITH A JOURNAL, LETTER, TEXT, OR EMAIL


Raffle Winner and Kicking Writer’s Block

Raffle Winner

The winner of the raffle is Peggy Janousky! Peggy, email me and let me know which prize you’d like: the ten-page critique or the necklace pictured in the first blog post.

How I Got Past a Current Bout of Writer’s Block

I hit a snag in my WIP recently, a snag that took me days to get through. During that time, I washed the kitchen floor, ate leftover Skittles from Halloween (I don’t even like Skittles), made dinner at 11 a.m., and engaged in other avoidance behaviors that were even less productive (and sometimes more fattening) than the Skittles. I could not get past the quarter mark of the novel, even though, plot-wise, I knew what was supposed to happen. And then, somewhere between a cherry turnover and a rerun of Castle that I’d seen several times, it started to dawn on me: I didn’t know my secondary characters or other minor characters very well. Sure I’d given some of them names, and one of them had even appeared in the first chapter briefly. But who were they really? Even though my main character who had just walked into the room didn’t know them yet, I needed to know who they were right now. I suppose if I were an extreme “pantser” I could have muddled through the scene and rounded out the characters later, but that method wasn’t working for me. I was stuck.

This revelation took me on another avoidance journey but a more productive one. I began reading articles and leafing through some of my favorite novels to see how others had rounded out their secondary and walk-on characters. Here are some of the things I learned:

Even minor characters have motivations.

This definitely is a no-brainer, but figuring out external and internal goals of main characters is hard enough. So it’s easy to forget that everyone has a story—even the guy that’s standing over in the corner of the room. I’d done a lot of backstory work on my two main characters, but I hadn’t done any work on the rest of the players. Although some of this info might never make it into the chapter, or even the novel, I realized I needed to know what these characters wanted and what that would mean to my main characters.

Names can do a lot.

When the time isn’t right to go into backstory or motivation on a minor character, there are other ways to tell who they are in just a few words. In Liar & Spy, Rebecca Stead gives us vivid portraits of several characters in the first two chapters through naming. First, her main character, Georges, tells us that his name is pronounced George, but the “S” is silent. This causes some kids to call him Gorgeous, which he says he doesn’t mind. With just that description, we learn so much about both Georges and the secondary character, Dallas Llewellyn, who calls Georges Gorgeous. (And isn’t Dallas a great name for a bully?) We also learn a lot about another secondary character, P.E. teacher Ms. Warner. She calls Georges “G” because she’s trying to help him out by making the name “G” stick. That also tells us a great deal about her character and her relationship with Georges. In addition, we’re given insight regarding secondary character, “Bob English Who Draws,” when we’re told that their fourth grade math teacher gave Robert English the name because he was always “zoning out and doodling,” and the nickname stuck. So, character names are, of course, important, but it can be equally important to tell the reader what the characters call each other and why.

Go against type.

Even with very minor characters, it’s important not to stereotype. Robyn Schneider does a great job with this in The Beginning of Everything. The main character, an injured, former athlete who has to hobble to the front row of the assembly because he can’t climb the bleachers, describes the others there as “all teachers and this one goth girl in a wheelchair who insisted she was a witch.” By going against the stereotype of the poor girl in a wheelchair, Schneider not only gives us a vivid picture of the character, but also tells us a lot about the narrator describing her. He doesn’t want to be seen as a stereotype either.

Give your secondary character a skill, preferably one that’s unexpected.

I’m currently reading Jandy Nelson’s fabulous I’ll Give You the Sun. And I was surprised when a secondary character, who didn’t seem to be the athletic type at all, suddenly started throwing rocks like a professional athlete. It gave one of the protagonists (and me) a whole new perspective on the character. This particular character is also an astronomy enthusiast, which makes for great conversations between him and one of the main characters.

Give your secondary character a defining characteristic.

You can do this with a physical description, a habit, or a pattern of speech. But it’s harder than it seems. I’ve read articles about how many secondary characters in novels have red hair. Yes, it can set them apart from the other characters, but it’s become so common, it’s hardly a defining characteristic anymore. Same with such habits as picking cuticles and biting lips. You’d think teens everywhere would have bloody fingers and lips with all the cuticle picking and lip biting that goes on in YA novels. Strive for unique details. Study actors on TV. On The Blacklist, James Spader does this weird thing with his tongue when he’s giving someone an ultimatum. It’s a brilliant quirk that distinguishes him from everyone else. You also want to avoid using trendy and overused words like “hotilicious” to distinguish your character’s dialog. When it comes to speech patterns, look at sentence structure. Does your character only speak in simple, noun-verb-object sentences? Or does he ramble on? Does she avoid contractions? Does he talk in sentence fragments only? How can your character’s speech make her memorable?

I’m off now to put all this into practice. If you have any suggestions on how you’ve rounded out your secondary characters and other minor characters, feel free to share. I’d love to hear about them.