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

Nine ways to hook your reader

with a powerful opening sentence.

hook

 

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.

Children’s Halloween Story Challenge

I recently accepted Susanna Leonard Hill’s challenge to write a Children’s Halloween story. You might be thinking that writing a story for Halloween doesn’t sound like a challenge. It’s simple really. All you have to do is:

 

  1. Decide upon the main character. (Could be a typical kid, or any number of spooky spooks like a ghost, mummy, goblin, or black cat.) 
  2. Then decide what the main character wants. (Maybe Max wants to grow the biggest pumpkin for a contest. Perhaps Gina wants to win a prize for the best costume at the school party. Maybe Carl wishes to learn a few spells from the witch down the block.)
  3. Then, think up an inciting incident to challenge the main character or keep him from attaining his goal. (What if… on the morning of the contest, a squirrel has eaten through Max’s prized pumpkin? What if Gina discovers that three of her best friends bought the same costume she did? What if Carl hears that the witch eats all children who enter her cottage?)
  4. From here, our main character must try and fail at overcoming obstacles in his/her path, fall into a dark, hopeless moment, get a brilliant idea, try again with renewed spirit, arrive at the grand story climax where resolution comes followed by the perfect denouement.

Normally this would not be a problem if the contest allowed writers 500 words (typical for picture books) to tell their story, but that isn’t the case.  These are the instructions:

The Contest:  write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (title not included in the 100 words), using the words costumedark, and haunt.   Your story can be scary, funny or anything in between, poetry or prose, but it will only count for the contest if it includes those 3 words and is 100 words (you can go under, but not over!)

So, I grabbed a cup of tea, sat at my computer, and started writing. By the time I had created a setting for my story to take place in, introduced my main character, and revealed his problem, I was already into the story by 88 words. Great! 12 more words to go. Delete, delete, delete. I started again and again, slimming and trimming, tightening and selecting the best words. And on the 26th of October, I will post my 100-word Halloween story here for you to read.

“Hiccup For Me.” The inspiration behind a story.

 

Most of the children’s stories I write, although fiction, come from a childhood memory or develop from some random remark my daughter makes. However, one of my favorite stories came about when our dog got a near-clinical case of hiccups.

drawn by Leslie Leibhardt Goodman

drawn by Leslie Leibhardt Goodman

Hiccups…. I pondered over a cup of minty tea. A dog with hiccups! That could be embarrassing. Hmmm… Do I know what it’s like to get the hiccups at an inopportune time? YES! My mind zipped back to my 6th grade history class. 6th grade—an awkward enough time in a kid’s life, but paired with Mr. McNab, my history teacher, 6th grade was intolerable. You see, Mr. McNab LOVED when a student in his class hiccupped.

He’d be droning on and on about the details of the Boston Tea Party when from some remote corner of the universe that was our classroom…

HICCUP!

Pausing his lecture to place his piece of chalk on the wood ledge, Mr. McNab rotated like a lighthouse beacon and faced his students. His eyes deliberately panned the rows, searching and waiting for the perpetrator to reveal him or herself. Ears cocked and alert, he waited.

HICCUP!

With the keen moves of a hawk, Mr. McNab sought out his prey.  Swooping in on his helpless victim, his large hands securely gripped the sides of the defenseless kid’s desk. Lowering his head to achieve direct eye contact, he demanded, “Hiccup for me.” Keeping his eyes locked on the poor kid’s quivering face, he waited for another hiccup.

drawn by Leslie Leibhardt Goodman

drawn by Leslie Leibhardt Goodman

“Come on…hiccup for me.”

Damn if that didn’t work every time! Pure humiliation is an awesome cure for hiccups. When the kid (whose name I’ll not reveal…) couldn’t hiccup, Mr. McNab resumed class with a smirk on his face as if he knew he’d won.

So, having that personal memory to fall back on, (woops…did I say personal?)  I had what I needed to write a fictional story about a dog who got the hiccups. Sink the hairy fellow in a totally embarrassing situation, and voila! I am sooooo ready to write.

Sometimes the most embarrassing moments in our childhood make for the funniest stories.

More of the stories that inspire my stories to come!

Would You Silence The World?

Something my daughter said yesterday sparked this blog post. We sat outside, reading on our porch swing when she huffed and puffed.

“I can’t concentrate!” she nearly exploded. “There’s too much noise.”

I set my book on my lap and listened. “Hmmm,” I said. “I see what you mean. Let’s pretend we can silence every noise.”

airplane trail“Quiet, airplane,” I said.

“Quiet, bird!” my daughter ordered.

“Quite, trucks and cars and train, whistling into the station,” I said.

“Quiet, squeaky springs in this swing bench,” my daughter ordered.

“Quiet, gusty wind, and balmy breezes,” I added. “And while we’re at it, let’s quiet the footsteps and chatter of our neighbors, walking their dogs,” I said.

“Quiet, dogs!” my daughter said.

Next, I quieted myself. Even when my daughter asked questions, I said nothing.

“Talk to me!” she said. “I changed my mind. I don’t like all this quiet.”

Of course, we don’t have the power to remove all the sounds in the world.

Thank goodness!

But in pretending we were magical enough to evoke silence, I helped my daughter realize how important sound is and how easily we tune it out. The thud, thud, thud of jeans in the dryer, the soft blub, blub, blub of the fish tank filter, the soft, wheezy, breathing of my dog, sleeping behind me on my chair. Sounds are all around us–constantly.

As a writer, I often feel like I enter into moments like a deaf person given the gift of hearing, or a blind person given the gift of sight. The symphony of sounds surrounding us is a great gift. Tune in today and as you listen, make a mental list of the sounds you hear.

A note to writers: When including sounds in your work, let those sounds bring meaning to your writing. Let the sounds reveal something about your characters. Does the train whistle remind Charlotte of her vacation in Italy when, because she missed her stop, she met the man of her dreams? Does the warm breeze take Robert back to the beach where he proposed to his wife fifteen years ago?

The random mentioning of sound in a book serves as dead filler. Bring sound to life by connecting it to your characters.

 

Let’s Go To Italy for Our Writing Warm-Up! – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-APhotographs make great jump-off places for story inspirations and writer warm-ups.  

Pour yourself a cappuccino and let’s get started!

Venice panoramaYour setting is Venice, Italy. Your main character could be a native Italian, an American traveling through Venice on business, or a young girl visiting her aunt for the first time. What if your main character is one of the many cats loitering between the buildings in this marvelous city, quietly aware of everything? Perhaps the water taxis are nowhere to be seen and the only mode of transportation is by gondola. Many options await you! The gondolier could misunderstand the address you give him and take you someplace else: a street fair, a cathedral, a museum, a bookbinding shop… The previous passenger could step out of the gondola in a hurry and leave a package, letter, or list behind. The gondolier could be a spy. He could also be related to one of your cousins. He could know the aunt your main character is visiting. Where will this photograph take you?

Another view of Venice.  

Two gondolas parked side by side.

Your main character observed the two gondoliers exchanging more than conversation.

Venice verticalThen the two men crossed the bridge and disappeared.

What lies beneath each canvas cover?

Where are the gondoliers?

For that matter, where have the Italians and tourists disappeared to?

A stillness has fallen over the city.

Where are the birds?

The shops are empty.

Windows are dark.

curtains are drawn.

Gelato stands are abandoned.

Or perhaps on a less gloomy note, it is early in the morning, the city is waking up, and the first day of your vacation awaits you.

As always, I wish you happy writing!

Leslie

Over 100 Ways To Awaken Your Childhood Memories – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-A

 

Tapping into childhood memories is an exercise, activity, and skill many writers turn to when generating a fresh story idea. However, after leaving childhood in the dust, the process of digging through the debris for a story-worthy gem is daunting.

How can we wake up our memories?

Sometimes a smell, a place, an event, holiday, or word can bring back a memory. Let’s try it and see what happens. For each word on the list that awakens a memory, write a sentence or two. Include such things as your age at the time of the memory, where you were, who you were with, what you recall seeing, and what you recall feeling emotionally.

Scents: Lavender, cinnamon, lemons or other citrus, pine, wet dog, fresh-cut wood, mowed lawn, chocolate, perfume, new car smell, peppermint, crayons, machine shop, roses, smoke, mildew, incense, popcorn, rain, people have smells, too – Is there someone from your childhood that comes to mind from a particular scent?

Places: Farm, city, train station, airport, grocery store, hardware store, camp, department store, shoe store, movie theater, relative’s house, friend’s house or backyard, garage sale, car ride, farthest place you traveled on vacation.

Holidays and events: Best Christmas because of: present you received, relative that visited, Santa encounter, new outfit, etc…), worst holiday gift you ever received, Valentine that surprised you, the first birthday party you can remember (What made it memorable? Who attended? Where was the party? What gifts did you receive?), sporting event you attended (Who took you? Did your favorite team win? Was the experience better than you expected?), recital, school play, county fair, contest, Halloween, school field trip…

Random words:  Can you think of a memory involving any of these? An alarm clock, dresser, back door, basement, attic, doughnuts, bacon, party, new outfit, new shoes, hand-me-downs, present, pet, insects, gardening, hamburger, rainbow, storm, wish, restaurant, stranger, zoo, peaches, carnival, circus, farm animals, lamp, museum, backpack, picnic, hiccups, sneeze, playground, stuffed animal, broken toy, broken bone, rain, stray animal, dentist, snow, first pet, photograph.

How about jogging your memory with some questions? Remember to make note of the place the memory occurred, who you were with, your emotions at the time, and any other details that crawl back. 

What is your earliest memory of trying a new activity like a game in gym class, a music lesson, flying a kite, swinging…

Who is the first friend you ever had? How did you two meet? Why did you like being friends?

Who was your favorite teacher? Why does this teacher stand out in your memory? What made this teacher the best?

Who sent you your very first letter? Do you remember how you felt receiving mail? Did you write back by yourself or with the help of a parent?

Did you have a pen pal? How did you get this pen pal? Where did he/she live? What kinds of things did you write to each other about?

What is your earliest happy memory? Feel free to list as many happy memories as you can. Were they happy memories because they made you feel good about your accomplishment(s), made you feel grownup, or made you feel listened to? Is the memory happy because you went someplace you always dreamed of? Or is it a happy memory because you received a great surprise or present you always wanted?

What is your earliest sad memory? Feel free to list other sad memories. Was the memory sad because the incident made you feel ashamed of yourself, sad because you lost something or someone, sad because you didn’t do well in school at an event or on a test, sad because a friend didn’t want to be your friend anymore?

Were you ever jealous of another child at school? What made you jealous?

What did you cherish as a child? (a person, a place, your privacy, time spent with a parent, walks, trips to favorite places, a doll or toy…)

What is your strongest childhood memory? What brings this memory back to you?

Did you ever leave something behind on a trip that caused you emotional stress? (a toy, book, a piece of clothing, etc…)

Did anyone ever surprise you with a great kindness?

What did you like to collect?

What was your favorite meal that your mom or relative made?

Describe your childhood bedroom. Did you have a desk? What did you keep in it? What could you see from your window? What toys did you keep on your bed? What books were your favorites and why?

Could you draw a floor plan of the house you grew up in? List as many things as you can remember being in each room. List as many activities or memories you have from each room. Which room(s) were your least favorites? Which rooms were your favorites?

I hope the words and questions unlock good memories for you. And if you are a writer, I hope those memories make their way into your stories.

Happy writing!

To Quote Hemingway – Wednesday Prompts and Inpsirations

chalkboard-3-A “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway

 

Bleed.

I asked myself what it means to bleed when writing.

I think another word, equally interchangeable with bleed, is purge. For me this means to empty myself until at the end of my writing day, I am exhausted.

Not unlike some other writers, I often type with my eyes closed to block out the visuals which ground me to the present. Eyes closed, I can watch my characters act on my mind’s stage, see their gestures, envision their movements, hear their dialog with greater clarity, and enter their thoughts.

Following is a partial list of what it means to bleed when writing.

YOU MUST

believe in what you are writing.

feel joy and excitement from what you are writing.

reveal your character’s fears and desires.

connect your reader to your characters by revealing their strengths and weaknesses and motives.

lead your reader by the hand and show them what is crucial and why it is crucial in each scene.

take your reader deep into the mind of your protagonist.

imagine yourself in the shoes of each of your characters, and write with their unique personalities in mind.

involve the five senses in your writing especially smell, a powerful, underused memory inducer.

not only describe the actions of your characters, but give reasons (motives) for their actions as well as their thoughts over the outcomes.

know the back story of your characters, not to bring to light necessarily, but to keep in mind so your characters feel real.

crush your protagonists hopes.

Place speed bumps in your protagonist’s path.

keep your protagonist from achieving their goal until the very end.

 

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want To Play A Game? – Wednesday Prompts and Inspiration

chalkboard-3-AAs I move forward in writing my middle grade novel, I continue to define my cast of characters. (remember my 75 point character development questionnaire?) Part of understanding my characters so they feel like real people involves creating a list of defining items for each. My main character is a fourth grade ‘girly’ girl with a strong dislike for camping (one guess what her class is doing on the weekend).

As a writing warm-up for this task, I wrote the names of some people I know along the top of a sheet of paper. Beneath each name, I listed defining things/items.

If you try this exercise, you can test your lists for accuracy. Without revealing the names, see if others, who know the people, can figure out who each list belongs to.

WANT TO PLAY A GAME? This exercise can also be turned into a fun family and friends game: choose four or more people everyone in the room has in common. Then ask everyone to list 5 or more things that come to mind when they think of each listed person. When you’ve all completed this, pass the nameless lists around the room to see who can match  the most names to the right lists.

What you’ll learn is more than you expect…

Beyond your list of items that shows your relationship to each person, you will see how others perceive these people, too. In writing, it is important to remember that, like in the real world, the relationship Anne has to her best friend, Linda, is different from the relationship Anne’s mother has with Linda. If Anne and her mother both made lists to define Linda, you would see two different lists. If Anne and her mother interact with Linda in your story, you’ll want to take the time to make both lists.

Whether you are making these lists as a writing exercise or as a game, you could include other items…

Habits: clicking nails, twisting a strand of hair, jingling coins in their pocket.

Hobbies: exercise, stamp collecting, reading, swimming, golf, gardening, etc…

Expressions: Whatever, gotcha, you know it, etc…

Positive personality traits: uncomplaining, willing to lend a hand when someone needs help, volunteers, kind to everyone, sets goals and achieves goals, organized, …

Negative personality traits: Complains often, no situation is ideal, finds flaws in everyone and everything, nags, lazy, untidy, undisciplined…

Defining Items individual would use at home, always or often take with on a car ride, always keep in their pocket, purse, or wallet: small notebook, pen, photo of someone, goals list, particular snack, magnifier, etc…

 

A FICTITIOUS EXAMPLE:

George – microscope, reading glasses, science magazines, strong coffee, workaholic, generous.

Megan – sketch pad, pouch of colored pencils, mini trampoline, bike, hair accessories, doesn’t put things away, artistic, creative.

Liza – exercise bike, workout clothes, cup of tea, Kindle, stretchy headband, spearmint gum, organized work space, often too honest with comments.                                    

After I filled in the list of items for some of the people I know, I made a column for myself. Why? Because as writers, we often look to ourselves when creating our characters.

Leslie (me)Stack of small notebooks (No surprise there. Right?), favorite wood pen my husband made for me, jar of highlighters, laptop (Of course…), coffee, my pets, stack of favorite books (too long to list), focused, determined, works so hard at her writing she often neglects doing the dishes and laundry.

If you play the game I outlined above, I hope you’ll learn a lot about those you know and have fun along the way!

Happy writing!

An Eye-Opening 3rd Grade Field Trip – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AI missed last week Wednesday’s Prompts and Inspirations because I added one extra item to my day. I realize one extra to-do doesn’t sound like much, but in my case, it involved volunteering at my daughter’s elementary school to join her class on a field trip. Normally I’d choose writing over hanging out with twenty, nine-year-old kids on a field trip, but I viewed this outing as research. If I’m going to write for this age group, I figured who better to spend the day with than my intended audience?

I arrived in my daughter’s classroom promptly at 8:45, in time to join a chorus of sweet voices in the Pledge Of Allegiance. I was surprised that after ___ years, I remembered all the words. The teacher informed the class if they wanted to leave their hats, scarves, and gloves at school they could as the entire field trip would take place inside a nature center where they would study water. Twenty, nine-year old students exited as if the room was ablaze to stow their hats, scarves, and gloves in their lockers. The teacher asked if I would like to ride the bus or drive my own car to the nature center. With research in mind, I joined the class, figuring I could listen in on conversations and immerse myself in the language of these children.

Wrong.

Have you ever visited a pet shop that sells birds? If not, picture the sound of a hundred crows chattering into a microphone with the volume stepped up. I couldn’t pick out a single word.

Once at the nature center, we were informed that the hands-on activities would take place mostly outside. After a one-hour hike, twenty, frozen kids raced inside to thaw during a short lecture. Then we followed a young man outside, who clearly had no patience with children, for a hands-on experiment. Each child was instructed to put their hands in a bucket of cold water to retrieve a rubber tube for an experiment in air and water pressure. That’s when the temperature took a sudden plunge from 50 to 30 something, and a freak snowstorm moved in! Everyone chattered and complained to the teacher about her instructions to leave their hats, scarves, and mittens at school. Some of the kids were clearly worried about getting frost bite and losing their hands because of the icy water the center provided for the experiments. I felt terrible for the children. Red hands, teary eyes, and shivering, little bodies. I moved around the group, warming as many children as I could by wrapping their hands in my scarf and rubbing their icy fingers. Four hours later, we were on the bus, heading back to school.

What I learned:

Despite the teacher’s daily immersion in the lives of nine-year-old children, she clearly didn’t take seriously their age-appropriate worries and fears. I see this among my friends who have children. So often adults belittle children’s concerns. As adults, we have learned along the course of our lives that many of our fears are unjustified. But knowing better doesn’t give us the right to brush a child’s fears away. For their handful of years on this earth and their limited life experiences, a child’s fears are as real to them as ours are to us.

And what did I observe when the teacher shooed her students away and told them they were being ridiculous for worrying about frostbite? Those children turned to other children for advice. I zipped forward into their teen years and pictured them facing age-appropriate issues that their parents might brush off as ridiculous. The result? Those teens turning to other teens for advice. Hard as it is, It’s important to take a child’s concerns seriously and help them realize that a parent or teacher is the best person to turn to. 

Another age appropriate issue:

On the bus ride to the center, my daughter boarded the bus well ahead of me and found herself seated between two boys. (To a nine-year old girl, this is a fate worse than broccoli for dinner.) So on the ride back, my daughter pleaded with me to sit beside her to prevent a boy from sharing her seat again. Did I laugh, snicker, or tell her she was being silly? No. I slid beside her on the seat and offered her my hand and a feeling of security.

How this relates to my writing:

Writing for children not only means developing a believable and likable child or child-like, adult character, but it also means bringing a problem into the story that is age appropriate. If I’m writing a picture book for 3-7 year old children, the problem needs to be one this age group can relate to, otherwise why would they want to listen to the story? It’s challenging to think back to when I was a child and remember my worries. So, my advice to writers is this… spend time with the age group you are writing to. And if possible, spend time with that age group in the same setting you have chosen for your book.

Happy learning and writing!

 

Reveal Character Through Setting – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AListen. How many sounds do you hear?

Open your eyes. What surrounds you?

Breathe. What smells linger in the air?

Touch what is before you. Describe the surface.

Taste. (I’ll wait…. Head into the kitchen, nearest coffee shop, or vending machine, and get yourself a cup of coffee, tea, or snack.)

Now place yourself in the setting of your novel. Where are you? What time of day is it? What year is it? What season have you selected? Who is near you? What surrounds you? What does the air smell like? What surface are you touching? What do you feel? What can you hear? If there is food near, what does it taste like?

Building your setting with these tools helps bring your writing alive for your reader. These tools allow your setting to become an active player. But to use them to reveal character, it is crucial to include those things that are important to each player in your story.

EXAMPLE: Take Janet and her boyfriend, Mike. They decide to hike through a rain forest. Upon seeing the towering trees, both standing and fallen, Janet sees history before her. She wonders what the world was like when the trees were saplings. How did people dress then? What did those people hold sacred? Janet marvels at the lush, green moss dripping from the branches. The wild, curly moss resembles her best friend’s hair she braided when they were kids. The intoxicating, woodsy scent brings her back home to the incense her mother burned at the holidays which triggers the scent of cherry wood tobacco her Grandfather smoked when he visited at Christmas. The bounce under her feet, as she steps on the moss-covered trails, causes her heart to flutter with giddiness as she recalls the bouncing on a trampoline as a child in gym class with her favorite teacher, Miss Henkley. She sighs because of the many gifts she has received here and promises herself she will make time to come back, if only to enjoy the wonder of so many cherished memories.

Enter Janet’s boyfriend, Mike. Upon seeing the fallen trees, he sees the ragged bark, the decay, the slugs that fill the crevices. He breathes out sharply, trying to clear the smell from his lungs–a smell that whisks him to a mountain cabin where, on a vacation when he was a small boy, his uncle beat him. The wild, curly moss resembles the pasta his mother served day in and day out to save money because of his father’s low paying job. And as for the moss-covered, bouncy trails…Jack recalls a time his brother tripped him, causing him to break his ankle, which in turn caused him discomfort and instability when he walked. Jack grumbles at the anger this place his filled him with and promises himself he will never step foot in this forest again to spare himself so much heartache.

As you move through your setting, place yourself in the shoes of each character. Focus on each one’s personality, quirks, history, hopes, and dreams. If you were that character, what would you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste? If you were that character, what memories might those things evoke?

Keep in mind that adding details with the goal of setting the stage creates a generic environment. If you want setting to reveal character, you must become that character. You must be aware through all of their senses when you write.