Nine Ways to Hook Your Reader With a Powerful Opening Sentence.

Nine ways to hook your reader

with a powerful opening sentence.

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Maybe you’re like me in that your blank computer screen acts a bit like an impenetrable wall one moment and an empty canvas of possibilities, awaiting your inspired ideas the next.

Picture it… While you’re hanging out at your local coffee shop, a girl at the table near yours tells her friend about an incident at school involving their class guinea pig, a projector cord, and a schoolwide black out. Your eyes bulge behind your iced cappuccino. What you just overheard is the makings of a humorous story.

Over the next number of days or weeks, you create a list of characters and give each a life and a history. The story problem becomes clear as you plot the grandest of all middle-grade adventures. Notes in hand, you sit before your laptop, typing out that first brilliant sentence that will have readers begging to know what happens next.

That’s about the time your inner editor bluntly tells you that what you wrote is sludge. “That gopher hole in your back yard,” she says, “has a better opening than this!”

Delete, delete, delete…

Where to start?

 

1. Begin with one attention-grabbing word.

Darkness. Pitch darkness filled every square inch of my school today thanks to our class guinea pig, Percival Pickles.

2. Make a comparison.     

I wish I had been placed in Mr. Dowfeld’s class with the hairy tarantula instead of in Mrs. Peach’s class with Percival Pickles, a guinea pig with serious powers.

3. Start with a powerful moment that raises curiosity.

Every room in my school went into a sudden blackout.

4. Begin with a fact.

Not every guinea pig makes a good classroom pet.

5. What sound can be heard?

Nibble, munch, squeeee! All of Lincoln Jr. High fell into darkness when Percival Pickles, our class guinea pig, bit the projector cord.

6. Start with a question.

What happens when a guinea pig mistakes the projector cord for his lunch?

7. Open with a fact that hints at something significant.

Death is merely one side effect that comes when a classroom pet electrocutes itself.

8. Begin with an intriguing fact.

Nobody, not even Percival Pickles, our classroom guinea pig, could believe an electrical shock could shoot his IQ off the charts.

9. Let your readers hear the compelling voice of your main character.

At 8:15 this morning, the single most important thought peddling through my head was to scamper to my squeaky wheel and play. Twenty-three minutes later, I’m well into understanding Einstein’s theory of relativity.

If you have a favorite way to hook readers with a great opening, I invite you to post it in the comments.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll share it through social media.

Prompts & Inspirations + Contest!

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I’ve decided to revive my Prompts and Inspirations posts, dust them off, and give them a good shake. “Why?” you might be asking. Because my good friend, Vivian Kirkfield, is hosting a WRITING CONTEST over at her blog, and having come up with a formula for her contest, I was encouraged to post my formula here.

Do you remember when I entered Susanna Hill’s Halloweenie contest? I complained at having to scrunch my story into 100 words. Had the contest been to write a story for children using my best 500 words, I would have thought, no problem. But 100 words… Impossible! However, nose to the proverbial grindstone, I grabbed a cup of minty tea (with honey), sat at my computer, and pulled out a story.

On to Vivian’s challenge! Is her contest to write a children’s story in 100 words?

Not even close.

And don’t guess a more generous number.

Seuss-3Vivian’s inspiration for this contest came after reading that the great Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was given a challenge by Bennett Cerf, one of the publishing giants of Random House. The Challenge was for Dr. Seuss to write a story using 50 unique words. Granted Green Eggs and Ham comes in at a whopping 775 words, but he wrote that timeless classic using only 50 frequently repeated words.

Vivian’s challenge cranks the difficulty up a few notches. I wonder if Theodore Geisel were alive today, what masterful and amusing story he would write with such limitations as these. Are you ready for this?

Write a story in 50 words flat for kids ages 12 or under. It can be prose, rhyme, free verse, silly or serious, and the title doesn’t count toward the word count. You can find the contest details here at Vivian’s blog.

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Prizes? Oh, yes! Vivian has outdone herself, and I’m not going to spoil it. You’ll have to hop over to her blog to find out what the winners will receive.

THE MAKINGS OF A STORY. Whether writing a picture book or novel, the writer begins by bringing the main character on stage and offering a look into his/her ordinary world. Something happens, better known as the inciting event. This event  is often disturbing to the main character and causes him/her to make a change. The Main character decides to make the change. Enter the new special world from which there is no turning back. He/she faces several trials and challenges and fails them all. The low point comes when the main character feels all is lost. In a moment of inspiration, he/she rises to the challenge once more. More trials and challenges come as he/she grows stronger. The turning point comes when our main character must defend what he/she values most. Enter the climax. Evil + main character + what main character values most come together. The main character triumphs and the story closes with the denouement, showing how the main character will live better because of the changes.

“But how am I going to get all of that wrapped up in 50 words?” you ask.

MY 50-WORD STORY FORMULA

For 50 words, you’ll have to abbreviate my instructions above. Here’s how I do it.

Break the 50 words into four lines of about 12-13 words each.

1. Introduce the MC and problem.

2. Offer details and insights into the problem.

3. Either add another layer to the problem or lead up to a resolution.

4. This is where you bring the story home with a clever twist!

 

I hope you’ll follow my blog to read my 50-word story. I’ll be posting soon!

Mentor Text Study Questions – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AI’m coming into the final week of ReFoReMo month. (Read For Research Month for picture book writers and illustrators.) Each day we receive five new mentor texts to check out at the library, study, analyze, question, etc… If only my library (anyone’s library) had the five new picture books available on our daily reading list.

So what are some of the questions I ask myself when I’m reading (researching) a mentor text?

1. What is the central question, and does everything in the story try to answer that question?

Yes. Every story must have a central question. A rule I learned the hard way. After having a trusted friend and writer look over a manuscript a while back. The comment she made was that my story, though filled with great action, humor, and well crafted characters, was a bit like tangled Christmas lights. (Gadz!) Once I posted my central story question beside my computer and kept one eye on it and the other eye on my manuscript as I edited, I was amazed at how quickly my word count shrunk and how my story gained focus. One of those Ah Ha moments I treasure like crazy.

What other questions do I ask while researching mentor texts?

2. What is the main character’s motivation for doing what they did or for reacting as they did? (no motivation = who cares)

3. Why something happens the way it does in the story. The Story arc. 

4. Are the main character’s failed attempts escalating to the point that my main character falls to his/her lowest point?

5.  Will the intended audience care? 

6. What do I think of the end? Why do I think the author chose to end the story that way? 

7. Is the ending satisfying? What were my feelings about the outcome of the problem? 

A. Was the ending predictable?

B. Was the ending inevitable?

C. Was the ending a plausible surprise/twist? 

D. Was I disappointed by the ending? 

Even if you don’t write picture books, mentor texts benefit writers.

Do you read mentor texts? Are there questions you ask while you’re studying those texts? I’d love to hear from you.

Writing Tool Book Discovery – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AInspirations don’t always come in the form of writing exercises. Yes, those brain-warm-ups are fun, but today I’m going to share an amazing book I came across.

The Flip Dictionary, by Barbara Ann Kipfer. When I learned about this gold mine in my writer’s group, I also learned it is no longer in print. However, used copies can be purchased online.

So, what is the Flip Dictionary? Or rather… what isn’t the Flip Dictionary? It isn’t a place to look up the definition of a word. weird, right? It’s more like a thesaurus – except the information is given at a level well beyond expectations.

Let’s say you can’t remember the word croissant, but you know it’s bread in a crescent shape. Look up bread, scan down the list until you come to crescent shape, and voila! Croissant. Where else can you look up the definition and arrive at the perfect word?

What is the word for breaking a code? Look up breaking a code. You’ll see the words: decipher, decode, and decrypt.

Hmmm. What is the name for that drinking glass – rounded with a narrow top? (You’re possibly thinking, are you kidding? I can look that up? Yes. It’s called a snifter.

And if you don’t see this book as wonderful enough, The Flip Dictionary includes terms such as: eye-related terms from conditions to exercises, specialists, glasses, movement, and more. Fabric terms (this one goes on for a page and a half), types of fears – you get a list of 54, sports terms, medical terms, Irish terms, the list goes on.

But buyer beware! When you look up something, be prepared to become so engrossed in this book you can’t put it down. Research was never this much fun!

The Idea Generator — Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AMaybe you’re a writer or perhaps an avid reader who wonders where writers get their ideas. I started thinking about this recently when I spoke to a friend who challenges herself to come up with one new picture book idea every day. Every day! How many picture book manuscripts did I think of last year? Easy answer. Twelve. My goal has been one new idea I develop into a manuscript each month.

Like other writers, I stay tuned in to life. I also pay close attention to everything my daughter tells me. (She’s nine, and although most parents have learned to tune out the nonsensical babblings of their kids by that age, I find her “babblings” spark story ideas. After all, she’s close in age to the group I’m writing for, so the things she takes notice of and gets curious about are the topics I need to focus on. I admit, she’s a little more serious in her thinking than a typical nine-year old. There are times when the answers to her questions would better be left unanswered until she was, oh, say… sixteen or more. Like the time I nearly drove through the garage door when she asked how two married men can make a baby.

So what happens when the stream of creative ideas stops? How does a writer get the damn to burst and the idea stream flowing again?

Although many writers tap into  their dreams, I can tell you flat-out that I don’t. Probably because what goes on in my head when it’s lights out doesn’t make sense in the real world.

“So, I was walking through a convention in a church which was really my childhood house when I heard a noise in the living room, which was really the pet shop around the corner. I saw a hundred children drawing pictures of floating houses with crayons that were made from candy canes. Then my friend Sam showed up, but it was really John disguised to look like Sam. He gave me a little jade statue of a goddess. I set it down and watched it morph into a green doll with movable arms and legs. When I picked the doll up, it’s eyes flicked open, it turned into a snarling tiger, and tried to grab me.”

See what I mean about my dreams?

When that idea stream isn’t flowing, ask yourself these questions:

What if?

I woke with wings and could fly? My brother turned into a moose? The backdoor of my house led to another dimension?

Wouldn’t it be incredible if?

Rain fell as dark chocolate drops? (I’m okay with that.) I were chosen to go to the moon? Everything I saw or read stayed with me in perfect clarity?

What would people think if?

I had super-human powers? Could change myself into anything I imagined? Knew how to speak every language in the world?

What would happen if?

The most distant planet with life where close enough to visit? Aliens attended school with us? Animals shared our level of intelligence?

or, taking it a step further…

We know that when lightning strikes a tree it will split it in half, blacken it, or turn it to ashes.  But what if when lightning struck something it gave life to that otherwise inanimate object?

How or where do you get your ideas for your writing?

Chime in. This is a place to share!

Do You Hear What I Hear? Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-ALast week at my daughter’s Christmas coir concert, I found a seat up in the balcony with a fairly good view of the stage, better, I was told by my daughter, than any seat on the ground level. Minus the small area blocked by the bouffant, out-dated hairdo of the woman seated before me, I had a fairly good view of the stage, the clock, the entrance, exit, and steady stream of parents.

Off topic, but as memory serves me, didn’t parents simply watch their children perform at school plays? Nowadays, parents watch their children through an iPhone or iPad held before their face as they record the show.

Back to the point of my blog post. Fifteen minutes before the show, I wondered if an elementary school auditorium would make a good story setting, and if so, what sounds belonged there. I took out my handy pocket notebook and compiled a list of sounds I could hear.

1. Shuffling feet

2. Squeaking seats as people adjusted their positions

3. The rustling of hats and coats

4. The white noise of a hundred, simultaneous conversations

5.The turning of program pages

6. Conversations on iPhones

7. Children warming up their voices behind the stage curtains

8. Tapping feet

9. sneezes and coughs

10. The 5 minute before show announcement

Sound is an important part of our writing. Life isn’t silent. When we write, we mention the cozy smell of cinnamon in a warm kitchen, the sight of delicate, drifting snow flakes, the sticky feel of sugar between our fingers from the sticky bun we ate in my earlier Wednesday post, and the taste of paprika in the beef stew we ordered at a Hungarian restaurant.

What can I hear as I type this blog post?

I hear my daughter shuffling through our stack of Christmas CD’s in the living room, my dog whining for something better than the canned swill in his bowl, my husband in the basement, turning wood on his lathe, the bubbling sound the fish tank filter makes, the hum of the dishwasher, the beeping of the completed dryer cycle, the heat kicking back on, the chirp of our birds, the other chirping of crickets I raise to feed my tree frogs, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, cars driving over the wet street, and rain falling when, on the day before Christmas, it should be snowing. Yikes! With all this noise, it’s a wonder I can get any work done at all. But most days, these sounds disappear. I don’t notice them. These are the sounds of my typical life and, for the most part, I have tuned them out.

For this Wednesday’s Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations, I want you to tune in to the sounds around you. Concentrate on what you can hear. As we know, a little sound here and there can add a level of richness or reality to our writing. Take out your notebook and make a list of what you hear where you are right now, what you hear at the coffee shop you pop into later today, at work, at the gym, in line at the grocery store, and wherever else your day carries you. Try closing your eyes when you tune into your surroundings, you might hear more without the distraction of sight. Can you list ten sounds in each location?

Did you hear/notice a sound that surprised you? Did you hear a sound for the first time that has been around you always, but one you never noticed until now?  Again, this is part of the showing not telling that brings our readers into the world our story takes place in.

This is a sharing place. I would love to hear from you.

The Death of Writer’s Block — Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

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THE DEATH OF WRITER’S BLOCK

You’re in the middle of writing your novel and gasp! The worst thing possible happens…a mind-numbing case of writer’s block takes over. I’ve been there. You’ve (probably) been there, too.

Picture it…the keys are warm under your fingers, your coffee or  tea is cooling because the ideas are flowing, and you’re too focused to take a sip. And then Brrrrrrrrrrpt! You freeze. The idea well you’ve been dipping into dries up, and you can’t imagine how to solve your main character’s problem.

Time to move away from your computer. And if you’re like me, that sounds unthinkable. But trust me on this. Grab a sheet of paper and pencil.  (Oooooooo, how old-fashioned.)

Let’s turn the situation in your manuscript around. Forget how you are going to get your main character out of his/her scrape, dilemma, situation,complication, entanglement, trouble, crisis, predicament, hitch, glitch, quandary, jam, pickle, impasse, plight, corner, kettle of fish, stew, Pandora’s box, can of worms, or put more simply…mess.  (Don’t you just love the thesaurus?)

Let’s shift our minds into a fresh gear.

READY?

Write your character’s problem in the middle of the page. Draw a circle around it. Next draw spider legs jutting around the circle and draw more circles–one at the end of each spider leg. In each of these circles write how you could make your main character’s problem even worse.

That’s right. Think backwards. When you can’t find a solution to a problem it often works if you reverse the problem.

EXAMPLE OF EVERYDAY THINKING:  

PROBLEM: Ben wanders away from the annual company picnic and gets lost.

TASK: How can we help him find his way back?

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: He could shout for help. He could backtrack. He could climb a tree and look around.

RESULT: BORING!

 

EXAMPLE OF THE THOUGHT PROCESS OF A WRITER:

SAME PROBLEM: Ben wanders away from the annual company picnic and gets lost.

TASK: How can we up the tension and make his situation worse?

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: He could wander in a forest, stumble over a low vine, twist his ankle, hit his head on a rock, go unconscious, not gain consciousness until midnight, awaken to the sound of gruff voices nearby, recognize some of the voices of his co-workers he thought were his friends, plotting to set him up at work and get him fired.

RESULT: A page-turner novel!

Time for this Wednesday’s Prompt and Inspiration!

Either think up a problem and work out how to make it worse using the spider technique, or take a problem in the novel you are currently writing and see if you can up the tension. REALLY up the tension! With this technique, you might find you never get writer’s block again.

What are some of your ideas?

 

The Wednesday Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AMy subject today is one you’ve seen in countless blog posts. But because it’s such a good one, (oldie but goodie) it will be the inspiration for my Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations.

Drum roll, please….

Show don’t Tell  (With a twist)

I’m going to introduce this topic via the television.

When we’re watching a movie, clues are given to let us know what sort of scene we’re entering into. One of these clues is the music. (Wouldn’t it be great if our novels could come with a built-in sound track?) No dramatic scene was ever accompanied by a soothing, dreamy melody. The music swells as the pounding beat mimics approaching, heavy footsteps. An ominous sensation falls around us. Our pulse quickens as we try to prepare ourselves for a sudden scare.

The way a scene is lit also adds to the feeling being established. (Another movie technique we have limited access to in our writing.) Harsh, contrasty lighting adds drama, while soft, diffused lighting is perceived as feminine and romantic.

But here is something we, as writers, have complete access to…  Grab your remote control and turn off the volume on your imaginary television set–completely.

Dead silence.

Let’s watch the characters interact as we study their facial expressions and analyze their body language to discern which emotions are portrayed.

We watch a man and a woman discuss something. Their faces appear calm. The woman holds a bouquet of roses. She gazes at the red blooms and offers a gentle, thankful smile. Then the man shoves his hands deep in his coat pockets and shifts his feet. While he speaks, his eyes dart everywhere except to the woman he just gave the bouquet to. The woman listens as she studies the man’s face. Her joyous expression is traded for one of contempt. Her eyes narrow, her fingers tighten on the bouquet, and BAM! She strikes the man’s chest with the flowers not once, but twice. A flurry of rose petals shower the air, her tears stream, she drops the flowers, turns, and runs.

And not once did I say she was angry,  nor did I say the man was nervous.

Stepping away from the television, let us suppose we are putting on a play, and the director tells us to be angry when the curtain goes up.

Each and every one of us will bring something unique to that scene. I might stomp my feet and scowl. Someone else might hurl a vase of flowers against the cardboard backdrop, a child might kick and scream. In order for every reader to see the scene the way we envision it, we must show them what we want them to see.

For today’s Prompt’s and Inspiration, watch your favorite DVD with the volume turned off.

Write out a scene without using the words: happy, sad, exhausted, curious, angry, elated, etc…

And, if you feel like “showing” part of what you wrote, scroll to the top of this post and click ‘comment’ to share.