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Highly Recommended

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At long last (the delay: I had to make my way back to my office shelves and all of their wonderful books, old and new), here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of first lines from published works and why they pull the reader in so well.

PB

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

MG

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test, but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

YA

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these lines has been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have some of my favorite first lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

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screen-shot-2010-09-01-at-74143-amTo keep up with my other book review this week (and since book reviews are much easier to write when you’re trying to leave for vacation and make sure the blog is all stocked up with posts!), here is another book review, this time of WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULT by literary agent Regina Brooks.

This is, quite frankly, the book I wish I’d written. It covers everything from character to plotting to getting published.

The scope of this book is much larger, so there’s not as much deep focus on the writing craft itself, but you do gain really valuable insights from the publishing world, as Regina contacted editors all across the children’s books spectrum to contribute thoughts and mini-essays on the topics at hand. So not only do you get to hear her take on it, but you get to hear how editors talk and think on the subject, too.

I think Regina’s advice on plotting is definitely worth a read. Since she’s an agent, she takes a more commercial bent in giving writing tips. And this book is specifically geared to people writing for the young adult market, so all of her writing advice squares well with the quirks needs of teen readers and of YA publishing.

I’ve been meaning to crow from the rooftops about this book for a while, and I’m glad to finally be starting up my non-fiction reviews, as this one definitely deserves a shout out. It’s a quick read, with writing advice and even a few prompts to get you thinking. And it comes from an agent, so all of the tips are geared in a direction that will make your YA fiction more saleable. This is a solid resource, especially great if you’re diving into YA and want an overview, but meaty enough where YA veterans will also find depth and new perspectives.

If you’re planning on seeking it out, it was published by Sourcebooks in 2009. The ISBN # is: 978-1402226618.

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review_spilling_inkNow, if you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that I used to do book reviews, and that I still occasionally recommend books to my readers.

Reviewing fiction is tricky for me these days. As my clients’ books get closer and closer to publication, I’d like to use this space to feature their work, since I’m deeply invested in their success. And so I hesitate to highlight the work of other authors unless I have a great reason to. That makes sense, right? Also, while I never made it a practice to rip books apart (If you’re just going to snark, why bother writing a review? Snark is all about showing off, not about communicating anything to your reader…), I don’t feel like I can be totally objective anymore. What if I have lukewarm praise for a book…and then want to work with that book’s editor? Oops. So I’ve been out of the fiction review game for a while and will stay out, unless I have something to recommend that I’m crazy about and that has a great lesson for writers in it.

However, enough writers have been asking me for book recommendations on the craft of writing that I thought I’d dive back into the review pool a little bit and recommend non-fiction.

On my bookshelves, I have fiction, picture books, graphic novels, and then a whole shelf of books about writing, both inspirational and informational. I think a shelf like this is essential to any writer or publishing professional. Not only do you want to read great writing, you want to read great things that smart people have said about creating great writing. So I’ll start writing recommendations for these types of books, since they’re so important. SPILLING INK by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter (with illustrations by Matt Phelan) is the newest book on my writing non-fiction shelf, and I absolutely love it.

You may be thinking, “Illustrations, eh?” Yes. This book is actually geared toward kids and teens who want to write. It’s touted as “A Young Writer’s Handbook.” But since we know that stuff geared toward kids and teens is just as rich and complex — and almost always more fun — than stuff geared toward adults, this book is a must read for writers of any age group.

Anne and Ellen gloss over a lot of the really nitty-gritty writing stuff, like POV definitions and fancy pants MFA terminology, but they really do strike at the heart of character and plot. And, best of all, they are personal counselor and mentor and cheerleader, rolled into one. Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter are widely published and beloved children’s book authors, both of them, and they pepper these pages with their own experiences, both uplifting and disappointing. It feels like they’ve opened up their hearts and their writing salon to aspiring writers, and they’re sharing the best and the most challenging of what they’ve learned on their writing journey.

The style of the book is warm and encouraging and effortlessly candid. I read it in one sitting and wished I had a crate of these to give away and to send out to all of my  novel-writing clients. Not that my clients need a How To manual, but I’m convinced that every writer, no matter what level, will glean something from this charming book, even if it is the refreshing feeling of two new writing friends, Anne and Ellen, rooting for you from behind this bright yellow cover.

Check it out today and stock, or start, your own writer’s bookshelf. If you’re seeking it out, the publisher is Flash Point/Roaring Brook, it came out in March, 2010, and the ISBN # is: 978-1596435148.

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Today, the Revision-o-Rama series of posts draws to a gentle close. I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and the food for thought has been fruitful for you. Of course, I will keep posting about revision topics on the blog and, of course, you will keep revising into the new year (right?). Now it’s time for me to take a breather, reset back to my “regular programming” and give you all a few ideas for how to proceed from here, as well as recommend some books on revision that I’ve read and found helpful in my study on the subject.

I have to say that the biggest revision weapon in a writer’s toolkit is… other readers. It’s that simple. Writing is most definitely not a solitary pursuit, at least it shouldn’t be. With writing, the following thing tends to happen: the more we write, the more we revise, the more we muck around in the same material over and over, the more blind we grow to it. The most obvious example is missing typos. Our eyes just tend to gloss over the words if we read them too much. Or we know our manuscript has problems but we leave them in because a) we love that part, b) we’re too lazy to really fix it, c) we’re waiting for someone to call us on it, d) we figure that’s what an editor is for.

No, no. As editors tighten their belts and only take on the most polished projects, it has become even more important to revise to perfection before you even seek an agent. (Who will then tell you to — you guessed it! — revise yet again, if they’re the kind of agent who places a  lot of emphasis on editorial work, which I do.) So, since you’re effectively blind to your own work, you have to bring in qualified readers as soon as you’re feeling strong enough to hear their feedback.

Join a critique group if you’re not in one already… there are plenty of writers on message boards and various websites who are just dying to get together and are maybe too shy to ask. Whether you do one online and email manuscripts back and forth or whether you find a group in your area through a writing or arts center, the Internet, Craigslist, etc., make sure the group you’ve got is quality. If they don’t write kidlit, they should at least respect it and want to learn more about it from you. If they’re not published, their work should at least be damn close. The best groups have at least one published or agented writer in the mix. Strive to join those that feel slightly more advanced than your level, so that you can really trust and enjoy their expert advice.

The other great thing about a critique group is that you learn a whole lot about writing just by looking at someone else’s work. If you see a mistake or something that jumps out at you in another manuscript, and you get good about analyzing what works and what doesn’ t — guess what? — soon you’ll be turning that same sharp and critical eye on your own work. (It usually takes a while to translate… anyone can be a critic but actually implementing the same advice toward oneself is the real challenge.)

Even if it’s not a traditional critique group with regular meetings, you should at least hook up with one or two writing friends or take a writing class. Maybe you can make some bonds that’ll extend past the last day. Or go to local or national conferences. There are plenty of writers there that you can befriend and keep in touch with. But the key is getting eyes on your manuscript, and getting eyes that know what they’re talking about (now that, my friends, is a mixed metaphor). Teach yourself to hear their wisdom but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll also discard a lot, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the more feedback you get on a manuscript, the more it’ll inspire you, the more it’ll spark your own imagination and the stronger it will be.

If you want to do more independent study on writing and revision in general, I can recommend the following books on revision, specifically, and the writing process in general:

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
REVISION AND SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
STORY by Robert McKee
THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST by David Morrell
ON WRITING by Stephen King
FINDING YOUR WRITER’S VOICE by Thaisa Frank
NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM by Chris Baty
FINDING YOUR VOICE by Les Edgerton
TIME TO WRITE by Kelly L. Stone

Books on grammar and punctuation:

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES: THE ZERO TOLERANCE APPROACH TO PUNCTUATION by Lynne Truss (hilarious!)
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (stylish!)

Books on writing for children:

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM ed. by Leonard S. Marcus (highly recommended!)
THE SPYING HEART by Katherine Paterson
THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN by Nancy Lamb

Books on reading:

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose

Finally, Maggie Stiefvater did this on her blog with great success, so I just wanted to open it up to you all in case anyone is looking for a critique buddy. You can use the comments for this post as a personal ad to find fellow writers who might be looking for the same. Maybe talk briefly about what you write (What age group is it for? What genre is it? Is it complete?) and what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can’t match anybody up so you guys can go off and work together.

As for me, I’m going to take January 1st off, again and drink in the last little bit of holiday time before publishing comes back in earnest (as will I) on January 4th.

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I recently read Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009) back to back. Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah — who revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without — so challenging and so delicious. In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Two such similar books — that question truth and reality and how easily these things can be manipulated in a reader’s experience of fiction — coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and YA is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for YA — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

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There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

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by Suzanne LaFleur
Middle Grade, 272 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737746

At the beginning of LOVE, AUBREY, we don’t know what kind of tragedy has rocked Aubrey’s world, we just know she’s utterly alone. As we watch her buy herself a beta fish and putter around her empty house, it emerges that her father and sister died in a car accident and her mother fled from the grief of losing them and the guilt of being behind the wheel. Grandma comes to pick up the pieces and moves Aubrey to Vermont. The two women, young and old, united by tragedy, try to put the pieces of their lives back together while searching for Aubrey’s mother.

Once they find her, it becomes clear that her pain is too raw and she simply isn’t ready to be a mother yet. Aubrey must begin the slow and complicated process of making friends, grappling with her memories and reimagining what home and family mean in this new life of hers.

If only most adults had the strength and grace of this eleven year-old character. Aubrey is so hurt — on many more levels than she’ll ever admit, even to the reader, who knows most of her secret heart — but her wisdom shines brilliantly from these pages. Through writing letters, first to her beta fish, then to her dead sister’s imaginary friend, then to her dad and finally to her mother, she expresses just how strong she’s become, how strong, in fact, she’s always been. These letters cap off chapters in the perfect balance of narrative and the character’s own self-expression.

LaFleur’s writing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Through Aubrey’s crystal-clear voice, she expresses longing, love, pain and hope with the lightest touch. The reader is always deeply involved in Aubrey’s emotions but never told about them outright. We just know Aubrey so well from the first page that everything she does makes total, resonant, brutally honest emotional sense. When her mother doesn’t come home for Christmas, we know her rage and grief, even if we’ve never experienced her circumstances.

This is the whole point of fiction, the very essence of creating a character who lives and breathes. For such a short, quiet book, LaFleur manages not only startling character development but a fleshed-out plot. Memories, emotions, flickers of new life and tortured pangs of the old combine seamlessly as Aubrey does chores to keep her mind off her grief, goes to a new school, visits with a guidance counselor, rediscovers her relationship with her mom and finally chooses her real home, at least for now.

The tagline of the book is: “She will make you cry. She will make you smile. Aubrey will stay with you forever.” I can’t put it any better than that. In this age of high-concept paranormal adventures, barbed-wire edgy and unrealistic, cookie-cutter romance, sometimes I wonder where all the small, literary books of amazing emotional depth and power are. LOVE, AUBREY is the book I’ve been waiting for (Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY (review) and Carol Lynch Williams’ THE CHOSEN ONE (review) also come to mind). It fills me with utter joy that such a talented writer and such a passionate editor found each other and created this unassuming, completely take-your-breath-away masterpiece.

LOVE, AUBREY comes out on June 9th, 2009. If you’ve forgotten the glorious ache of feeling your entire register of human emotions, read it as soon as you can. You’ll be so glad you did. I didn’t even know how much I needed Aubrey in my life. Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book will appeal to middle grade readers as well as, um, everyone on the planet. Buy this for the kids in your life and tell them to pass it on to siblings, parents, grandparents. I’m serious. Everybody needs to read this book and its appeal is so broad, so human, that it will charm and touch each person who comes in contact with it. Of all my recent reads, this one is most likely to stand the test of time. It is a modern classic in my head already and it hasn’t even come out! Yes, I know I’m gushing, but I’m totally allowed.

For Writers: It isn’t often that writers achieve the ultimate goal of transparency, as LaFleur does here. There are some writers, of course, who thrive on their trademark voice, who use it everywhere as an indelible stamp. LaFleur has a style, sure, but as a writer, she completely disappears into Aubrey’s voice, she spins her words without once interrupting the “fictive dream” to call attention to a flourish of writing, a clever joke, an important moment. Most writers, whether consciously or not, just can’t quite get themselves out of their own writing. Not LaFleur. What you see here is all Aubrey, all the time. Please read it. If it doesn’t change your writing, and I’m not sure it will because its lessons are very subtle and complex, it will change the way you see character and it will redefine your boundaries of how deeply into a fictional soul you can go.

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