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Coaching KidLit Podcast-Episode 12: Good Beginnings

Episode 12 – Good Beginnings

[00:00:38] What readers need/want to know

[00:05:49] The Importance of Opening Lines, Paragraphs, and Chapters

[00:06:54] Great Examples

[00:36:04] First Lines Are Not Always Written First

[00:43:49] Action Items


Books MentionedSharon’s Action Item

Go to your mentor texts, go to what’s published and see what the first line is and see if you can determine what the book is about.

Or if the first line establishes at least some components because we know that the first line, the opening and the first chapter have some very specific things that they need to establish. I would say also that another good exercise is to start thinking about what things you can and would like to establish in an opening of your own book.

What are the things that your work is actually doing? Take a look at your opening and then think about what your jacket copy might say based on that opening. And do a similar thing, but only with your own writing, with whatever is your work in progress. Start to think about what, if you came to this cold, would you really be getting out of it?

And try to be very objective about w hat would a reader get out of what your first line does or says? Or your opening paragraph.


Coaching KidLit Transcript

[00:00:00] Sharon Skinner: Hey Christy.

[00:00:01] Christy Yaros: Hey Sharon.

[00:00:03] Sharon Skinner: So twelfth episode. Wow. This is kind of amazing.

[00:00:09] Christy Yaros: Twelve episodes of talking to you. Yeah, it’s amazing that I’ve lasted this long.

[00:00:15] Sharon Skinner: Ditto kiddo. So, because we talked about making this an episode about Where we started, keeping with the theme of starting something new, starting something fresh. We had never done a podcast together before. We had never done a KidLit podcast before. It was a new beginning for us. How about we talk about good beginnings?

What Readers Need/Want To Learn From Good Beginnings

[00:00:38] Christy Yaros: Good beginnings. I like it. Well, I think , probably the first thing, is I wanna know what kind of story I’m getting myself into.

[00:00:47] Sharon Skinner: So setting the genre, establishing, the world, that kind of thing. So letting us know where we are when we are, and what kind of a story we should expect.

[00:00:58] Christy Yaros: Right. Because I don’t wanna start reading a story that seems like it’s a fantasy or a mystery, and then it ends up being something completely different on page 50. Because, you know, we picked up a book for a reason. So what we call the promise of the premise. Let’s make sure that we’re establishing right from the beginning here. This is the kind of story. And, and not to say that there can’t be twists later that change the perception, but enough to know this is a middle grade book. This is a YA book.

[00:01:31] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. That, and especially, when you’re looking at genre fiction, like you mentioned, science fiction and fantasy. If it’s really a romance, then there are certain things that romance readers are going to expect. But if it’s science fiction with a romance subplot, then there are certain things that they’re going to expect to happen as the key story with the under story being the romance. So you definitely wanna make sure that whatever expectations you’re setting up, that you keep that promise by the end of the book.

[00:02:07] Christy Yaros: Right.

[00:02:08] Sharon Skinner: I also think that we have to set the tone of the book. I don’t appreciate a story that sets me up for a dark intrigue and then turns into straight up comedy.

Yes, there should be some levity, or some lightness here and there in a story, maybe, to help me get through some of the darker stuff, depending on the story. But if it’s a thriller, You’re not going to want to let the reader off the edge of their seat. You’re going to wanna keep them there. So establishing that tone is a big part of making sure that you have established your setting and your genre as well.

[00:02:48] Christy Yaros: And your voice, the character, voice, or your point of view voice of what we can expect.

[00:02:55] Sharon Skinner: Right, because the Viewpoint character doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist. It could be a side character who’s telling the story, about what happens to another character. Although I think mostly in middle grade YA that’s one of the things that we see more, is that you’ll see the protagonist is the person whose viewpoint we’re seeing the story through for the most part. But there are those best friends stories where they’re watching the growth of another character or what have you, and it’s the character arc who’s the protagonist that we’re watching and getting to understand.

[00:03:33] Christy Yaros: Right, right. But we will know by the end of the first chapter who it is that is telling us this story. Or at least part of this story, because I guess a caveat would be if we do have more than one point of view, And generally in middle grade, and YA they tend to alternate chapters with the points of view.

Then by the end of your first chapter, you won’t necessarily know that there’s a second point of view, but in that case, I think I would treat the first chapter from each point of view as its own kind of first chapter.

[00:04:07] Sharon Skinner: I agree with that, but I would also say with that, when you’re looking at that, you need the first chapter to do as much heavy lifting as possible to get them to that second chapter.

And so that first chapter is really critical in, as you say, setting, the tone and the establishing the world and the genre, and giving us a character that we care enough to follow. Even if at the next chapter we’re following another character in that world, we need that first impression, that first chapter to make us wanna get back to the story that we started.

[00:04:44] Christy Yaros: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But if the second chapter is from a different point of view and it’s in a different place and at a different time or something, then those things need to be reestablished. But, but yeah, I mean, if your first chapter isn’t interesting, no one’s reading the second chapter, so it doesn’t really matter.

[00:05:00] Sharon Skinner: Right. Also, I think, we need to establish whose story it is, whose story is it that we’re going to experience? Who is it that we’re going to learn the most about?

And establishing whose story it is in that process. We typically, learn very quickly what the conflict is or who or what the antagonist is. So we should at least see a glimmer of what that’s going to be at the very beginning.

[00:05:27] Christy Yaros: For sure.

[00:05:28] Sharon Skinner: And in order to do that, We need to know the character goals. Right? So we need to have some idea of what the character’s goal is initially, and that sets us up to have at least a glimmer of what the conflict and or antagonist will be.

[00:05:48] Christy Yaros: Right.

The Importance of Opening Lines, Paragraphs, and Chapters in Good Beginnings

[00:05:49] Sharon Skinner: So we’ve talked about establishing the genre and the world or the setting, the where and when of where we are. This is important because, You have to make sure that the care, the reader, is grounded in the story at all times. And if you start with talking heads and I’m floating in in this blank space and I don’t know where I am and I don’t know why I’m here, that’s a really good excuse for me to close the book and go do something else.

And that’s why the first lines have to do so much heavy lifting and also the grounding of the reader has to take place over and over throughout the story, but that initial setting, that initial grounding, is critical for the reader to know where they stand in place in time and where the story at least starts.

[00:06:44] Christy Yaros: Without info dumping and giving us all of the information about where we are and why we’re here and how we got here and all of that stuff.

Excellent Examples Of Good Beginnings

[00:06:54] Sharon Skinner: So a really good example of doing that without an info dump is Feed by M.T. Anderson. He starts out with a couple of really awesome lines in that book. “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” So first of all, you know the voice, right? This is a teenage voice. The moon completely sucked. You also know you could go to the moon in this, which means this is some sort of science fiction or futuristic fiction.

His second line is, “We went on a Friday because there was shit all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring Break.” So now we know when we are, we know that there is some sort of a contemporary type of world that has been established here. Spring break is a real world thing that we’re all familiar with.

So he gives you this unfamiliar idea of going to the moon, but he also grounds it with this nice familiar idea of these are teenagers who are on spring break. And they were bored and there’s gonna be language. It’s a really great start to a book. It’s one of my all time favorite openings in a book.

And it’s one that, I mean, I read this, what, 10 years ago or something, and I still remember we went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to complete the suck. So well done, and it sucked me right in because it also establishes voice. It gives us whose viewpoint we’re in. It gives us a setting and genre and tone and attitude and it makes us ask questions.

That’s another thing that first chapters really need to do is set up some questions for the reader to want to answer. That’s what makes us keep reading. And this sets up some beautiful questions. One is, wow, they went to the moon. What happened on the moon that it completely sucked?

Cuz you know, going to the moon seems like it’d be pretty cool and Who are these people that can go to the moon?

[00:09:07] Christy Yaros: Who is we?

[00:09:09] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. Right. So it’s one of my favorite openings in a book ever. It’s very memorable and it really leads you into the rest of the story beautifully.

[00:09:19] Christy Yaros: It does.

Okay. How about this first line and what it sets up? ” First of all, let me get something straight. This is a journal, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when mom went out to buy this thing, I specifically told her to get one that didn’t say Diary on it.”

[00:09:35] Sharon Skinner: That’s some voice, right there. Now sounds to me like it’s contemporary. Sounds to me like the character has some real opinions about the difference between a journal and a diary, and it sounds like they’re already frustrated because mom didn’t give them what they wanted. So tell me the name of the book and the author.

[00:09:56] Christy Yaros: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jeff Kinney. Totally different opening from Feed. I mean, here we have a, a younger voice, a funnier voice. We know we’re gonna be getting into some opinions for sure.

[00:10:12] Sharon Skinner: Well, I think that they both reflect opinions, right? There’s that tone of, I have a specific attitude about life, the universe and everything that I’m going to be expressing in my story.

And now compare that to, here’s another, here’s a classic. ” Where’s Papa going with that ax said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

[00:10:35] Christy Yaros: Who doesn’t know that one? Charlotte’s Web.

[00:10:39] Sharon Skinner: By E.B. White. Yeah, that’s, I mean, what a great first line. And that first chapter of Charlotte’s Web sets up the world that, they’re on a farm. They have certain expectations as farmers and it’s brilliantly set up because who’s not gonna wanna keep reading, “where? Where’s Papa going with that axe?

[00:11:00] Christy Yaros: Now when we talk about genre and tone and promising premises, this could also be a very different story , depending on what comes next. If there are zombies outside and Papa’s going to hack through some zombies,

[00:11:18] Sharon Skinner: I might have to think about that. Ah, as a SpecFic author, what could I do with that?

[00:11:24] Christy Yaros: I don’t think it’s in public domain yet.

[00:11:27] Sharon Skinner: Okay, here’s another one. So this. Chapter is only two pages long. It’s pretty amazing what is contained in it. Now, this is, again, another book that is told from multiple viewpoints. It has four different viewpoint characters, but this first opening, this first section makes you want to read more, and it starts with the header of Joanna.

“Guilt is a hunter. My conscience mocked me. Picking fights like a petulant child. It’s all your fault. The voice whispered. I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago when I fled from Lithuania.

[00:12:26] Christy Yaros: Hmm.

[00:12:27] Sharon Skinner: That’s just the first few lines of this, and look how much it sets up of the story. And this is Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, and we get a beautiful hook.

And that’s another thing that we always wanna see in a great first chapter, is that hook. That’s why we’re talking about first lines. Guilt is a hunter. I mean, wow, what a powerful open. For a story and then to go into my conscious mocked me, it’s all your fault. And then the next paragraph is all about where we are.

East Prussia. Sometime during World War II, we are with these characters on the road that they shouldn’t be on. So there’s conflict. The Germans would take them off the road. So you’re all of the things that we’ve talked about earlier.

[00:13:20] Christy Yaros: Okay. What about this one? Tell me what you get out of this line. “Late in the winter of my 17th year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house. Spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over. Ate infrequently and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

[00:13:42] Sharon Skinner: Wow. There’s a lot to unpack in that, don’t you think? So? I wanna know why the character doesn’t think that they’re depressed when the mother thinks they’re depressed based on these behaviors. Because I would think that I was depressed if I were doing those things, right? So that’s an interesting opening.

[00:14:03] Christy Yaros: What did you find out?

[00:14:05] Sharon Skinner: To me it’s contemporary. I’m not sure if it’s YA or middle grade. I’m thinking it’s either upper middle grade or it’s YA though, based on the way that it’s written. It’s a big, long compound sentence.

I love the idea that the character is fixated on death, that’s very interesting to me. So I have questions of why, of course there are plenty of questions. Why is this character reading the same book over and why are they fixated on death?

[00:14:34] Christy Yaros: So it is the Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

[00:14:38] Sharon Skinner: Ah, yes. It’s a good opening. He’s a good writer, though. He’s, got a solid handle on his craft. So what else does that first chapter set up for us in that book?

[00:14:49] Christy Yaros: I mean, I guess might have to give a little spoilers here, but she is dying. They are obsessed with reading the same book over and over again. That’s big part of the story is going to meet the author of the book that, that they keep reading over and over and we don’t know that. But it’s all here late in the winter of my 17th year. You know when we are.

[00:15:10] Sharon Skinner: That’s right. It’s YA. See? I missed that part.

[00:15:12] Christy Yaros: It’s hard when you’re not looking at it. So 17 years old, late in the winter, not leaving the house, spending time in bed. But we know she’s sick too.

[00:15:23] Sharon Skinner: We do know that we’re dealing with a young adult character.

[00:15:27] Christy Yaros: Yep. And John Green is good with voice, so that definitely establishes Some voice there.

What do you got for me?

[00:15:33] Sharon Skinner: So I’m gonna read this one. “Kira tasted blood. She ran her tongue along the inside of her swollen mouth and winced. The cut on her lip had reopened. Shifting in her saddle to ease the pain that burned through her body, she glanced at the men who rode beside her. They were tough and strong, battle hardened soldiers. Two of Toril’s fiercest fighters. Escorts, he’d called them. Kira knew only too well what they really were.”

[00:16:06] Christy Yaros: Hmm. Okay. So, we’re on horseback. Some kind of fight or something just happened at first when you first said about tasting blood Again, you know, could be vampires

[00:16:18] Sharon Skinner: Right?

[00:16:19] Christy Yaros: She could be a zombie.

[00:16:20] Sharon Skinner: But it makes the reader want to read the next line.

[00:16:23] Christy Yaros: Right. Who are they? You know who they are, but we don’t know all too well who they are. tell us.

[00:16:29] Sharon Skinner: That’s a good question. Right? Who are these guys and why is she riding between them?

And she’s bruised and battered. So this is the opening to my book, The Healer’s Legacy, which is Young Adult Crossover crossover, and it’s a fantasy, not high fantasy. It doesn’t have like elves and wizards in it. It does have some magical aspects, and it does have a War Lord, who’s been chasing her and keeping her basically captive, and her escorts now we know are not escorts. He calls them escorts, but she knows that they’re really her guards. So what else does that suggest though, is that she needs guards to keep her from escaping?

[00:17:19] Christy Yaros: Okay. Let’s see. ” The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got much to say.”

[00:17:28] Sharon Skinner: Oh my gosh, I love that. I should know that. I should know the the name of that. okay, so we’ve got voice, we’ve got serious voice. We know that we’re in a place where a dog can talk. So there’s either magical realism or something of that nature going on and that the protagonist is either not really well educated or at least has a vernacular that they speak that is not entirely what we would call, your standard English.

And that, there’s gonna be some interesting dialogue perhaps between the dog and the character.

[00:18:06] Christy Yaros: Which indeed there is. So that is Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Which is sci-fi. And the dog does talk mostly about having to poo.

[00:18:19] Sharon Skinner: Why not? Because we all have to do it right? We all have to go.

[00:18:22] Christy Yaros: But that is a world where everybody can hear men’s thoughts.

[00:18:28] Sharon Skinner: Interesting. I know that first line from somewhere, but I hadn’t read it yet, so it’s on my list.

But yeah, I didn’t expect it to be necessarily sci-fi. That’s a little bit of a surprise from that first line. But I knew there would be some elements that were other than real world elements from the fact that the dog talks.

All right, I have another one for you. “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.”

[00:18:56] Christy Yaros: Oh, I know that one.

[00:18:58] Sharon Skinner: “The knife had a handle of polished black bone and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut. Not immediately. The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.”

[00:19:17] Christy Yaros: With what?

[00:19:19] Sharon Skinner: Oh, such a great story question right from the get go. This is The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, so, of course, another master. But what else did you learn in that opening?

[00:19:35] Christy Yaros: That it’s gonna be scary?

[00:19:39] Sharon Skinner: There’s a creep factor to it.

[00:19:40] Christy Yaros: There’s definitely a creep factor to it.

What is this hand? Who, whose hand is it? Why is there a knife? What is it setting out to do? Who is telling the story?

[00:19:52] Sharon Skinner: Such a good book too.

[00:19:54] Christy Yaros: Let’s see. “You’re still alive in alternate universe’s, Theo, But I live in the real world where this morning you’re having an open casket funeral.”

[00:20:05] Sharon Skinner: Ooh, interesting. So you’re still alive in alternate universes. So either it’s science fiction or it’s contemporary with someone who’s very into the idea of alternate universes, which I don’t know if that’s like string theory or what that is, but, and somebody’s dead.

Hmm. Well, it starts with death, so that makes it automatically a little on the dark side for me. And also, I’m wondering what the character’s journey is going to be. I, now I wanna know, is it science fiction? Is this person gonna go to an alternate universe, or is it just about learning to live with whatever has happened in this?

[00:20:48] Christy Yaros: Yep. History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera.

[00:20:53] Sharon Skinner: Oh, see, now the title gives me more, right? We could do a whole, we could do a whole episode just on titles.

[00:21:02] Christy Yaros: Right.? I mean, it is contemporary and it is about dealing with grief. But it is interesting how if all we had was that first line, we would wonder what genre we were in. So hopefully the next paragraph or so lets us know. Whether we’re actually in real, in contemporary, or we’re in a place where there are alternate worlds,

[00:21:25] Sharon Skinner: Right. So the opening sets up a hook, it sets up some questions, it does it beautifully.

We’re gonna want to read to find out where we really are. So, you can only do so much in an opening line. Some can carry more, do more heavy lifting than others. The story beginnings have to do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you can’t get a reader to get past that first couple of lines, if you can’t hook them, and that’s what we’re talking about is new beginnings when you start a book.

If I’m not hooked early on I don’t have time to spend a lot of time figuring it out. But I also don’t wanna get dumped on. I don’t want somebody to say, it’s 1942 and a bunch of people are walking along the road and, the Germans are coming after them, or they might come after. I don’t want an info dump.

I don’t need to know how old the person is right at that moment. I don’t necessarily need to know everything about them in that moment, but I need to know why I should keep reading.

Okay. I’ve got another one for you. “Oy! Get up.” Gage woke to a hard kick to his backside. He sat up fuzzy brained and bleary eyed darting looks around the dim bolt hole. “Where is everyone?”

[00:22:39] Christy Yaros: Hmm? Who’s kicking him? Where is everyone? Is he being held hostage someplace? Everybody? Was he kidnapped?

[00:22:48] Sharon Skinner: So this is from Lostun’s Found. It’s my middle grade Steampunk that is a mashup of Oliver Twist [Charles Dickens] and Peter Pan [J.M. Barrie].

And there’s a really important reason why I wanna bring this up. We get early writers, especially in the middle grade arena. I don’t know about you and your clients, but I’ve seen plenty of writers trying to start a story with their characterwaking up. The character wakes up.

They get out of their pajamas. They put on their clothes. They go brush their teeth. They go down to breakfast, whatever it is that they do when they first wake up. That is not a way to hook a reader. And one of the things that you hear a lot from agents and editors is don’t start a story with your character waking up.

And I just wanted to point out that it depends on how you have them wake up. This is one of those rules that’s not a real rule, it’s a guideline, and the reason that it’s become this rote guidance is the same reason that we hear all the time, don’t write rhyming picture books. Nobody wants you to submit your rhyming picture book.

That’s not true. A lot of picture books are rhyming picture books. There’s some beautiful rhyming picture books in the world, and they’re still being published day by day. We get to see them. The reason that you hear it all the time is because for beginning writers, they don’t typically know how to write rhyme well. They’re not poets. They don’t come from that. And there’s a lot of forced rhyme and slant rhyme and a lot of pitfalls that you can fall into. The same thing happens with starting the story with a character waking up. The one you read A Fault in Our Stars, technically about a character who’s in bed, right? They may not be waking up for their day, but it’s about what is your daily routine when you wake up and, mm-hmm. , in this case with Lostuns Found the premises is that he’s being kicked awake. This is not normal for every day it’s a surprise.

[00:24:58] Christy Yaros: Hopefully.

[00:24:59] Sharon Skinner: Now, this guy is a meanie. He’s a bully. He bullies everybody. But it’s not a daily occurrence to be woken this way. And yet it establishes the world. It establishes the tone. It establishes that this is part of this character’s world. He does get kicked and he doesn’t say, Hey, stop kicking me.

He says, Where is everyone?

[00:25:21] Christy Yaros: Right. Story begins on the day that something is different,

[00:25:25] Sharon Skinner: Right. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to particularly read this opener, because of the fact that we hear that a lot. Don’t start with your character waking up. And really what that’s about is don’t start with your character.

Waking up on an average day doing average things. That doesn’t, we don’t necessarily care. That’s not how you establish the real world for this or the setting for a book in an engaging way that hooks us. Starting by kicking somebody awake. Now you’re gonna wanna know okay, who’s kicking him in? Where is everyone and where is he in this dark bolt hole?

[00:26:00] Christy Yaros: Right. Is that where he, Did he go to sleep there? Yes. With other people and woke up and they’re gone? Or did he go to sleep someplace else and wake up there alone?

[00:26:10] Sharon Skinner: Yeah.

[00:26:11] Christy Yaros: “Yes. There is a witch in the woods. There has always been a witch. Will you stop your fidgeting for once? My stars. I have never seen such a fidgety child.”

[00:26:20] Sharon Skinner: Ooh. All right. I really like that. And of course I know that, okay, there’s a witch in the woods. Well, all right, that’s, that kind of sets up the genre. We know that there are witches and there’s a woods, so the setting is near a woods.

And this kid is fidgeting and being schooled by someone. I know that much. And child, I would say it’s definitely gotta be middle grade because typically we don’t refer to the character as child unless there’s a really good reason for it. So that would be my guess.

[00:27:02] Christy Yaros: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill. Who is in fact, a girl being raised by a witch.

[00:27:09] Sharon Skinner: Been a long time since I read that. It’s a good book.

So here’s a good one for you. ” Blue Sergeant had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”

[00:27:22] Christy Yaros: I know which one that is. So I don’t know what to say about it cause I know who that is.

[00:27:26] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, it’s The Raven Boys. Of course.

[00:27:28] Christy Yaros: I know. It’s The Raven Boys

[00:27:29] Sharon Skinner: by Maggie Stiefvater. And that’s a great line and it sets up the series as well as the story, I think, in a really nice way. It’s got that paranormal piece to it of foretelling and it’s got some darkness to it because come on, you’re gonna kill your first true love. Wow. That’s just, that’s huge.

[00:27:55] Christy Yaros: That’s a lot of pressure.

[00:27:56] Sharon Skinner: That’s a line that really hooks a reader.

[00:28:00] Christy Yaros: But it also gives us that it’s the third person. And that we’re gonna learn about Blue Sergeant.

[00:28:07] Sharon Skinner: And that’s another thing. What an interesting name Blue Sergeant. I wanna know how or why this person has the name Blue.

[00:28:17] Christy Yaros: How, about, “The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in it’s turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless and hot. It is curiously silent too with blank white dawns and glaring noons and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

[00:28:43] Sharon Skinner: So this is great because this is a really good example of we don’t necessarily have character in this. We have voice lots and lots of voice. It feels like a semi-rural or rural setting to me, because of the Ferris wheel metaphor and the idea of how hot summer is and how paused life is.

So there’s this wonderful sense to it. But now I wanna know, are we gonna come down the other side of that Ferris wheel? So we’ve reached the top. We’re at this top, we’re in this place of pause, and I really wanna know who this character is, even though I don’t know anything about the character. The idea that they see the world the way that they do is really intriguing.

[00:29:33] Christy Yaros: Do you wanna know what it.

[00:29:34] Sharon Skinner: Of course.

[00:29:36] Christy Yaros: Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt so an older, older classic.

[00:29:42] Sharon Skinner: Right. And you can get away with a little more of that kind of setting, I think more classics got away with more of that. But I, I think there’s still a place for it in the world where you have those kinds of openings that have atmosphere like that in an engaging way.

If you do it well enough, I’ll, keep reading, because it did set up questions in my mind about who’s telling this story and what is it gonna be about. And wow, we’re in this pause. And now can we get started?

I have another one for you. This is one of my favorite books. It’s an older book as well, but it’s still one of my top reads of all time. “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. I’m 16 now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of Major Suckage.”

[00:30:33] Christy Yaros: What was that first line again?

[00:30:35] Sharon Skinner: “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.”

[00:30:41] Christy Yaros: And that’s the best day of your life. You almost died, right? Yeah. That does open up a lot of questions. I mean, obviously they tell us how old they are now, but how did you almost die? How do you go downhill from there? I don’t think, I don’t know what story that is.

[00:30:59] Sharon Skinner: Well, I think it sets up the tone beautifully for this, right? Because this is Going Bovine by Libba Bray. And it’s basically a contemporary YA retelling of Don Quixote.

So Don Quixote chasing windmills, but in a contemporary setting with a teenager as the lead character, and it’s got humor in it. It’s Libba Bray.

[00:31:29] Christy Yaros: So obviously there’s humor.

[00:31:31] Sharon Skinner: Well, not all of her stuff was. A Great and Terrible Beauty.

[00:31:35] Christy Yaros: I’m just thinking back to when this book came out. And I saw her at a launch party at RJ Julia in Madison, Connecticut. And she was wearing a cow suit.

[00:31:48] Sharon Skinner: ‘Cause it’s Libba Bray. She did Beauty Queens, which is such a funny book. It’s social, political, and a great example of satire. But yeah, Libba has a way of putting humor into the dark situation that takes place in Going Bovine and doing it beautifully. This is one of my all time favorite books. I believe it, it did win a Prince Award . So I’m not alone in liking this book.

[00:32:22] Christy Yaros: “We must, by law keep a record of the innocents we kill, and as I see it, they’re all innocents, even the guilty.”

[00:32:30] Sharon Skinner: Woo. I think I might know what book that is, but It’s been a while. Um, so when it says We kill, I wanna know who we is, who are killing people and why they’re doing it, even though they, everybody’s innocent. Even if they’re guilty, and I wonder what they’re guilty of, that they might still be innocent.

[00:32:52] Christy Yaros: And by law.

[00:32:54] Sharon Skinner: Right. Right. That they have to keep a record of them, but it’s part of their job apparently to kill people.

[00:33:02] Christy Yaros: Mm-hmm. , you remembering what book it is now?

[00:33:06] Sharon Skinner: Is it Scythe?

[00:33:07] Christy Yaros: It is, yes. Yes. Neal Shusterman, I love that series.

[00:33:12] Sharon Skinner: Very memorable.

[00:33:13] Christy Yaros: They are in fact, Reapers.

[00:33:16] Sharon Skinner: That’s a ton of heavy lifting for a first line of a series.

[00:33:20] Christy Yaros: Such a good series also told in multiple points of view.

How about funny books. If a book is supposed to be funny how soon should we know that it’s gonna be funny?

[00:33:33] Sharon Skinner: I think you need to know pretty early on, I wanna know if it’s gonna be humorous pretty early on. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the opening line, but there needs to be something in that first paragraph that alerts me.

I think that setting the tone is one of the critical components to a good opening of a book. Although I will say that there’s a difference between humorous like Terry Pratchett and books that have some lighter or more humorous elements in it, because I have a tendency to write things that have some levity or some running gags in them that are definitely not what I would consider comedic or humorous books or stories.

But that there is some fun throughout, especially my teen reads. But I think it depends on the level of humor too. So if it’s, if this is gonna be like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know, we need to know pretty early on that this is gonna be tongue in cheek, very humorous, very dry humor, very witty.

I think you get that from Going Bovine. I think you get that it deals with darkness, but it also deals with it in a way because of the word suckage and the fact that, you know, I’m 16 now, so you can just imagine the suckage, right? That there’s, there’s already that element of humor in it or that teen voice of taking things in that way. Little bit of snark maybe.

[00:35:07] Christy Yaros: Yeah. Here’s a few for you that I think promise funny.”Froggy Welsh the Fourth is trying to get up my shirt.”

[00:35:17] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. That starts out funny. That definitely funny.

Carolyn Mackler. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things [Carolyn Mackler].

[00:35:24] Christy Yaros: “The thing about a cavity search is this, it has nothing to do with the dentist.”

[00:35:29] Sharon Skinner: Yep. That’s humor right there. And oh, my goodness, that sets up all sorts of really interesting thoughts.

[00:35:39] Christy Yaros: Gordon Korman, Born to Rock. Do you think if the first line is funny like that, would you expect that the rest of the book is going to be like that?

[00:35:48] Sharon Skinner: I think it needs to be. I would anticipate that when you’re setting me up for that, that’s what I expect. That’s that promise of the premise. The tone of the book, if that’s what we’re getting, then we need to get more of that.

First Lines Are Not Always Written First

[00:36:04] Christy Yaros: But these first lines probably were not first lines. For a long time.

[00:36:10] Sharon Skinner: No. I rewrote the first chapter of The Healer’s Legacy over and over and over and over before I found that first line, “Kira tasted blood.” It took forever.

Most of us will discover by the time we finish a book that we have to go back and rewrite that first chapter or maybe even throw away what we thought was the first chapter and start fresh in order to make that first chapter do all the things that it needs to do to lead to the rest of the story and the conclusion. My first two chapters in that book were writing my way in and ended up in the trash.

So almost nothing of what was in those chapters ended up in the book, and then I think chapter three became chapter two, and it’s just all these things, right? So that chapter and that intro, that first line couldn’t be written until the entire book was not only written, but had been revisioned and revised multiple times.

So that I really understood the story, knew what I was trying to say, and felt that I was prepared to just focus on that first chapter. I wasn’t ready to focus on the first chapter till the rest of the book was pretty much done in, pretty much in solid shape, because often we write that opening or that first chapter.

And then we write the whole entire story. Even when we’re plotters, even when we plan it out, we get to the end and realize, Oh, oh, I can mirror this ending. Mm-hmm. in my beginning, or I can bookend the story, or, Oh, I need to foreshadow these events at the very beginning of the story.

So some of us, like me, we get to that last chapter in the initial draft and realize, oh, My super subconscious did all these wonderful, glorious things along the way, and I changed my thinking about the story along the way, and my character did some really interesting things along the way that now need to be reflected in that first chapter in order for it to set up the entire story. So that first chapter changes.

And then once the first chapter is written, that’s when I’ll go in and really massage those first few lines. Once the first chapter reflects everything it needs to and has everything in it. And then I will revise it until the very opening lines do exactly what they need to do. Now is that to say that some authors don’t come up with the first line right away, That that is the line that everything else hinges on?

I think there are authors who can do that, or that have just such a great opener that it sticks. I mean, Mt. Anderson, very possibly, and I don’t know, I haven’t heard him talk about the book, but he may have started with that line. We went to the moon and it turned out to completely suck.

That may have been part of the whole premise of this journey that he sends his characters on, but rarely is that how it works. For the most part, most of us have to go back and revise and massage and rework the beginnings of our stories and those opening lines, in particular,

[00:39:32] Christy Yaros: I’m a first line kind of writer. It doesn’t necessarily work all the time, but I will say that a lot of times the first line is what comes to me along with the character. But there’s also a danger in being that kind of writer because if you fall too in love with something like that and it needs to go and it’s hard to let it go.

[00:39:56] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. That’s that smother your darlings moment where you have to say, this isn’t working. I’ve had plenty of moments like that in my life and they’re painful. You know, I have this beautiful line, but it just now it sticks out like a sore thumb and it doesn’t like fit anything in the metaphors are off, but it’s beautiful and it just doesn’t work for the story or in this place in the story anymore, and that can be really painful.

But we have to be able to do that. And sometimes we need somebody else to tell us that. That first line isn’t really where the story starts, or even that first chapter isn’t really where the story starts. Right? Sometimes we need somebody else to say, I think your story starts here.

[00:40:44] Christy Yaros: And I think that happens a lot because like you said, you are kind of writing your way into the story and you’re learning your character, you’re learning your character’s voice, your own voice, your writerly voice and how it’s gonna go.

And by the time you get to the end, you are a completely different writer than you were when you started writing that you’ve improved so much, you’ve learned so much. You’ve learned so much more about your story and what you’re trying to do with it. That when you go back to that beginning, I think it’s probably more often than not that the beginning doesn’t necessarily fit the story that you ended up telling.

[00:41:18] Sharon Skinner: And to your point, you also are deepening the relationship with your character and your understanding of who they are.

[00:41:24] Christy Yaros: Mm-hmm.

[00:41:24] Sharon Skinner: And that also matters in the way that you set things up. In that beginning, that opening, that first lines, that first chapter. I mean, I don’t think Ruta Sepetys started this story with the line “Guilt as a hunter.”

She may have had that line somewhere in her heart, but I don’t know that she started this story here because this story is a story of someone who’s experiencing the ravages of war. And those are beautiful lines. Like “there was a knife in the dark.” That’s a great line. Gaiman probably started the story there. I would not be surprised if he just went, “Oh yeah, this great. I’m gonna just write this.” And he went from there. But not every first line carries that much weight.Or carries that much water.

[00:42:14] Christy Yaros: No.

[00:42:14] Sharon Skinner: Sometimes it has to be the first chapter or the first paragraph, at least the first few lines. For example, in Malice [Heather Walter], which I recently read, which I really enjoyed, It starts with, “The golden bell above my doorframe, bobs twice.”

And that gives you some setting that gives you a little bit of atmosphere. But it’s the rest of that paragraph that I think really does the heavy lifting. “I roll my shoulders against the needling ache that settles at the base of my neck whenever that damn thing sounds. After nearly a decade of hearing it, I’ve come to despise the bell’s shrill, tinny, clang, almost as much as the message it carries. A patron is coming.”

And that’s just the first few lines, right? But now that’s your sales pitch right there for the book. That’s the, ooh, here’s why you wanna read this book. But that opening grounds us in the setting.

We know that we’re someplace where there’s a door and there’s a bell to signify that the door has been opened.

[00:43:23] Christy Yaros: And maybe not kids, but any adult who’s worked in retail knows that feeling.

[00:43:28] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. Knows that feeling. That’s by the way, by Heather Walter. And it’s book one in the series and I really enjoyed it.

So we’ve talked a little bit about openings. First lines. Do you have an action item for our listeners today?

[00:43:49] Christy Yaros: I think it would be a good activity, kind of like what we were just doing here to go and pick up some books, some published books, and read their first lines before you read anything else about it.

And then maybe read the first line or the first paragraph and kind of think of what it tells you and what questions you have. And then read the jacket copy and see if you were able to figure it out.

[00:44:16] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. So matching it up to see if the information matches the sense that you’re getting from it. Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.

[00:44:25] Christy Yaros: I think that could be a fun game in the before times when my area, we used to have our writers meetups in person, One time we brought, the first paragraph of our works in progress typed up on a piece of paper and cut out into strips, and we put ’em in a bowl and you pulled one out and someone had to read it out loud.

And then everybody did this exact thing where we guessed what age group it was, what genre it was, what was happening . And it was really interesting exercise, I think for writers, especially with works in progress, where again, like we said, you’re probably not gonna be keeping that as your beginning, but one, does it make you wanna keep reading?

And two, what is it that I think this book is gonna be about, and some of them we were dead on and some of them like not even close.

[00:45:14] Sharon Skinner: Well, I think that for what I would say, and I think it’s a great idea to go to your mentor texts, go to what’s published and see what the first line is and see if you can determine what the book is about.

Or if the first line establishes at least some components because we know that the first line, the opening and the first chapter have some very specific things that they need to establish. I would say also that another good exercise is to start thinking about what things you can and would like to establish in an opening of your own book.

What are the things that your work is actually doing? Take a look at your opening and then think about what your jacket copy might say based on that opening. And do a similar thing, but only with your own writing, with whatever is your work in progress. Start to think about what, if you came to this cold, would you really be getting out of it?

And try to be very objective about what would a reader get out of what your first line does or says? Or your opening paragraph.

With that, you and I are going to move now into the next chapter, the next part of our story with Coaching KidLit, this podcast.

[00:46:42] Christy Yaros: See you in season two.

[00:46:44] Sharon Skinner: Bye.

[00:46:46] Christy Yaros: Bye.


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