I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – San Diego chapter. Award winning author of forty-one (and counting) children’s books, Richard Peck, spoke at a recent meeting. His topic was First Lines and he gave examples of great ones. Would the opening to my Alex Bullied be one of them? I thought not. It’s certainly no Charlotte’s Web, which begins “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Back to the drawing board. How do I make that first sentence sparkle? Sometimes a writer works and reworks a first sentence. I did that with my first book, Riding On The Wind.When I finally wrote– “Carrie could barely sit still on the hard wagon seat. Never in her fifteen years had a trip into town taken so long.” I knew I had my opening.
When I first thought of writing Morning of the Mermaid, I was inspired by a line I thought would be the first sentence — “When Calista’s parents died, an hour apart, she thought, now I will experience great grieving and utter desolation.” I thought that had punch. But it just didn’t work and ended up somewhere in the middle of the book.
Anything else in the whole two or three hundred pages can be changed. We all know the quote — credited to everyone from Hemingway to King — “kill your darlings.” We know we cannot become attached to our words. But we fall a little too much in love with our first words. They’re our first-born. The words that make up our first line are the favorites of our darlings. But sometimes, woe is us, they have to go.
Here’s the thing about that first line, that first page. When we write the original, it feels fresh and right and pulls us in to keep writing all of those 200-300 pages. When we have to go back and start the book again, it can feel forced. Not like the first time when we were so inspired. We are all too aware, this second or third go-around, of how important our first lines are.
After listening to Richard Peck speak, I knew I would have to rethink the opening to Alex Bullied. I kept staring at it, hoping, I suppose, that it shone with such brilliance that it jumped off the page, snaring the reader. It didn’t. It began — “Geeks and losers streamed int Gureville Math and Sciences Charter Middle School.” Not exactly Richard Peck-worthy. I continued with — “September sunlight blinked off eyeglasses and mouths full of braces. I’d never seen so many buttoned up, tucked in, wrinkle-free shirts or high-waisted khakis in one place in my life. Where were the jocks? Oh yeah, no sports, unless you count chess or glee club.”
My first attempt was even worse. I had the kid imagining himself in an old black and white Twilight Zone. That really didn’t work, for so many reasons. Three pages in and I knew if I didn’t change it, the entire book would fall flat.
I kept thinking how important that first impression is, to the agent’s assistant, the agent, the publisher, the reader. And that’s when I came up with this, the final first sentence and opening to Alex Bullied — “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” my mom said.
Seems to me that says it all.