Happy Release: ZOE GETS READY and Bethanie Murguia!

How completely inappropriate…I am late in announcing the release day for the amazing picture book ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out on May 1st from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. It’s the story of a girl with big hopes for a day when she gets to choose her own outfit. But how can she make up her mind with so many possibilities in her closet? And just what kind of day will it be?

You can also watch the YouTube trailer for the book here:

I’m going to bring you another super cool picture of the team behind ZOE this week, but for now, get on over to your local independent bookstore and pick up your copy! If you are an online shopper, find it on Amazon or Indiebound. You can check out Bethanie’s website here. And don’t worry about falling in love with this spunky heroine and being left hanging…Scholastic will publish a follow-up ZOE book next year!

Juicing Your Story Turning Point

The story turning point for your main character is one of the most important elements in your fiction. If you can create that on your page, your audience’s involvement and investment cements forever. A lot of the time, climactic plot moments should rub up against these instances of deep personal change. When your character’s heart hardens, or softens. When one of their core defining values is broken down, or reinforced. When they make the most difficult decision of their lives. These instances are what great storytelling is made of.

story turning point, the turning point of a story
From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner.

Exploit Your Story Turning Point

Sometimes, though, a change of heart just happens to a character. They don’t like someone and then, well, they wake up one day and feel differently and then the writer continues the plot from that new perspective. The only problem is, any story turning point is an Event-with-an-E. Or it deserves to be, because it has great power potential with readers. Just like you should put great care into approaching how to start a book, the turning point of a story is a hot spot that you absolutely must exploit.

The Turning Point Of A Story Should Be An Intentional Moment

From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner. It will usually happen in reaction to something in your plot and be expressed mostly in Interiority (your character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions). After that, their new attitude or feeling about a person or situation will filter down and express itself in how they behave in scene and during the plot. But that moment when they see something differently has to be present.

I talk a lot more about the turning point of a story in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. For now, though, do go back and examine your character’s story turning point and make sure that you’re juicing every last bit of resonance from that moment. This goes double for picture books, where you have a lot less text to work with. Sure, real kids change their minds all the time, but fictional ones need to be very strongly motivated in order for their emotional logic to make sense to the youngest readers.

Hire my developmental editing services and I’ll help you make sure that those emotional turning points are present and intentional throughout your story.

SCBWI Central California Illustrator’s Day

On May 19th, I’m speaking to the wonderful group at the SCBWI Central California. This day of fun and learning is for picture book illustrators and authors, and it’s the first of its kind for this region. My talk will address both illustrators and writers and, even though it’s called Illustrators’ Day, I know that almost every picture book writer I’ve ever read could learn a lot by thinking like an illustrator, so come one, come all!

Here’s the official information from the SCBWI:

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SCBWI California North/Central’s 1st Illustrators’ Day (for picture book authors, too!)
DATE: May 19, 2012
LOCATION/TIME: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Rancho Cordova City Hall, 2729 Prospect Park Drive, Sacramento 95670

Join us for an exciting day with inspiring presentations, a first look panel discussion, a promo card contest, and an optional oral portfolio critique (extra charge). Our featured speakers include:

Rotem Moscovich, the brilliant editor/art director with Disney/Hyperion
Ashley Wolff, the talented author/illustrator of Miss Bindergarten and Stella and Roy fame
Mary Kole, the wonderful Andrea Brown Literary Agent based in New York

Member: $85
Non-Member: $90

The day includes:

Promo Postcard Contest (entries due May 1st)
First Look Panel Discussion (entries due May 1st)
Portfolio Display (bring your portfolio on conference day)
Nurturing Portfolio Critiques (an additional $35)

The talks at the conference will be the following:

Gestalt, or 1+1= More: Words and Pictures in Picturebooks
Rotem Moscovich, Disney/Hyperion
We’ll take apart the elements of a picture book, including pacing, page turns, and structure. Looking at examples together, we’ll discuss how the two main components—illustrations and text—work together to create more than a whole.

Creating in Words and Pictures: How to Craft Successful Picture Books
Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
A talk for picture book writers and illustrators that focuses on hook, story, character, voice, thinking like an illustrator for writers, thinking like a writer for illustrators, and how to write picture books that prevail in this challenging market.

Author, editor, illustrator, art director–A Book Has Many Parents
Ashley Wolff, author/illustrator
The only names on the jacket are the author and illustrator, but It takes a (small) village to make a book. I’ll look back at memorable collaborations over a 30 year career.

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN, so click here to sign up.

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If you’re a picture book writer and anywhere near Sacramento on May 19th, I hope to see you there!

Writing a Fantasy Picture Book

I’ve been seeing a lot of fantasy picture book manuscripts that are what I’ll call Flight of Imagination. A kid is either dreaming or out playing and the plot of the book deals with them having an adventure based largely in their imagination.

fantasy picture book, books about imagination
Books about imagination should include more substance than simply the fruits of a child’s fantasy playtime.

An Example of an Ineffective Fantasy Picture Book Premise

Johnny headed out into his backyard…

…only it turned into a swamp full of menacing alligators!

And this continues for the duration of the fantasy picture book, until Johnny is safe and snug at last, back in the real world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of story. In fact, my brilliant client Bethanie Murguia makes great use of a child’s active imagination in her upcoming picture book ZOE GETS READY, out from Scholastic in a few weeks. But books about imagination should include more substance than simply the fruits of a child’s fantasy playtime. Imagination is a sales hook and a universal element for picture books, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

Most of the stories I see have great whimsy–Johnny’s backyard may turn first into a swamp, then into an ancient Egyptian tomb, then into a spaceship–but that’s almost a problem. They tend to be too specific. One kid’s imagination played out. A character who, other than his big imagination, is not well-defined. And they tend to invite clichés in terms of illustration because you’re practically forcing your art talent to illustrate the imagined scenes as if they were illustrating the contents of thought bubbles, which is a tired old trope.

Other People’s Dreams Are Not Interesting

This is basically how I like to explain my problem with these stories: Other people’s dreams are not interesting. Imagine your best friend calling you up one morning and telling you about this crazy, whimsical dream she had. It’s full of crazy adventures and really specific fantastical creatures and it is a thrill ride…for her. I find my own dreams interesting, but that’s because they’re specific to me. I am not nearly as captivated by a purely imaginative thrill ride through another person’s subconscious. If that’s all there is, then I’m less likely to be interested.

Now, it’s not like you can’t have books about imagination that center around flights of fancy. We’d lose brilliant books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE if that were the case. But there need to be other layers in play, and an actual story within the imagined landscape, not just an episodic barrage of images or crazy adventures. Characters need to be fleshed out. A plot needs to be in motion, with sequential events that go from conflict to climax. Other themes and universal childhood experiences need to be embedded within the fantasy picture book. (If you’re just starting out, follow the link for a primer on how to write a picture book.)

For this reason, books about imagination are a tougher row to hoe than most. Just like A Day in the Life picture books, that follow a kid from morning to bedtime and showcase the family, pets, and favorite toys. Neither has an inherent plot and, in this market, that’s a losing proposition. Look at your fantasy picture book objectively and see if it suffers from this colorful–but nonetheless problematic–issue.

ETA: Wendy’s comment, below, is particularly astute. And a lot more succinct than this blog post. Go read that instead! 🙂

Let’s dig into your own fantasy picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration

Picture book alliteration always annoys. Just kidding! Well, not always, but it’s getting there. Why? Because this is such a common technique that amateur writers use, so the overall quality is lacking. I’ve been thinking a lot about alliteration picture books recently, after working with a lot of picture book clients. Here are some more nuanced thoughts on the topic.

alliteration in picture books, alliteration writing, alliterative writing, alliteration, alliteration children's books, alliteration kid's books
The best picture books are fresh and vibrant, and alliteration dates a manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration. You’ll often find alliteration in rhyming picture books.

Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Picture Book Manuscript

But more and more, I get alliteration picture book submissions that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see picture book alliteration on the shelves, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration picture books, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, picture book alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

Picture books are some of my favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration (or other cliché techniques) but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.

Wise Words About Picture Books and Contest!

One of my very favorite picture book writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal (LITTLE HOOT, DUCK! RABBIT!, and many more) gave an interview in the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book that I would love to excerpt here the day before my picture book webinar at 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, January 12th, which is still open for registration. As a reminder, you will get a 90-minute craft intensive talk on picture books, the opportunity to ask all the questions you have (every question gets answered, either live during the presentation or in an email afterward), and a critique of one picture book manuscript (up to 1,000 words in length).

During the webinar, I’ll talk about how to find the right hooks and universality to really make your picture books marketable on today’s shelves. I’ll also talk about the writer and illustrator relationship in publishing, as well as how writers need to think more like illustrators (and vice versa) in order to come up with truly successful picture book projects.

This excerpt features Rosenthal’s thoughts on finding just the right book idea, as well as working together with an illustrator and how that creative collaboration takes her work to new heights. Read on:

“When my kids were small, there were countless stories told. Often for the boys, I’d tell them stories about dinosaurs, monsters or something in a cape—all these nonsense stories they loved. Ninety-nine percent of the stories I made up for my kids were nonsensical things. But once in a while there was some kind of cool stuff. You have to tell one thousand bad ones to get to the one good one.”

Rosenthal says finding that one good one amidst all the others is a little bit like dating. “When a relationship isn’t right, even if you think I know this is going to work out, he’s really cute, it always has some convoluted glitch—this non-fluid, non-seamless barrage of obstacles. But true love is this flawless, shiny, perfectly smooth thing, at least in the beginning. When I’m writing something, I’m coming at it from a number of different angles. With the ones that end up working, everything falls into place more fluidly.”

That feeling of fluidity can also come from working well with an illustrator. For one of her most recent books, Plant a Kiss (which explores what might grow if you, quite literally, planted a kiss), Rosenthal worked closely with illustrator Peter Reynolds to develop the vision and feel of the book—a process she says has “been a dream.” Not only was it a chance for her to work with one of her favorite artists, but she was thrilled with the vision he brought to the book.

“When I started, I had mocked up the book with stick-figure illustrations. It was tidy, executed visually 100 percent. There was a moment of talk when we thought maybe the book should look like this. It was kind of cute. But thank goodness we reached out to Peter and he said yes. During the first conference call he said he’d send us some sketches. Later, I opened the document, and he had illustrated the entire book. And it was just this moment of ‘Oh my god, he nailed it.’ The characters are beautiful.”

With all of her picture books, Rosenthal has strived for this type of creative partnership. “I really value the collaboration. Oftentimes the writers are kept apart from the illustrator, but that paradigm never made sense to me. From the first ‘yes’ [for Little Pea and Cookies] I made the plea to be involved. I couldn’t imagine not doing it. The books gain so much by the writer and illustrator interacting.”

Interview excerpt of Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Meg Leder from 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (c) 2011 Writer’s Digest Books. All materials used by permission of F+W Media. All rights reserved

Now that you’ve heard one picture book creator’s thoughts, you can hear even more thoughts on the craft of PBs during the webinar. To sweeten the pot just a little bit, I am going to give away one more copy of CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, but this contest is a quickie. You can enter in the comments below through 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow (Thursday, January 12th). I will announce the winner during the webinar (and on the blog next week). If you are taking the webinar, do mention that in your entry. US residents only, please.

Forward this post around and let’s give away another copy of CWIM. Those picture writers out there registered for the webinar will hear more from me tomorrow afternoon!

For those blog readers wondering when I’ll get back to the craft posts here, those are coming up next week. It’s just that 2012 has so many exciting things going on right out of the gate that I have to spread the word. I’ll resume my regular programming once the Writer’s Digest Conference excitement dies down. I seriously can’t wait for this year’s conference. You can check out more details here, and be sure to email me if you still need a special $115 discount code!

Writing Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about writing animal characters. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

writing animal characters, talking animals
If you’re writing animal characters, it should be because your particular story wouldn’t work any other way.

Animal Stories: Not Quite as Popular Anymore

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Are Animals Better Suited For Difficult Stories?

Darshana brings up an interesting point. Are talking animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for writing animal characters, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

Are Animal Characters Integral to Your Story?

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include talking animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

It’s a Matter of Personal Taste

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with talking animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal characters simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Writing Animal Characters: The Overall Market Trend

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto talking animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. This is a critical point to keep in mind when you’re approaching how to write a character. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.

My developmental editing services will help you determine which kinds of characters (whether animal or human) will best suit the needs of your story.

Picture Book Lessons

Are you excited to impart some picture book lessons? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them. Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about books that teach life lessons.

picture book moral, didactic picture book, preaching in picture book, picture book lessons, books that teach life lessons
I don’t want picture book lessons! Entertain me!

The Problem With Picture Book Lessons

Overt picture book lessons make agents and editors squirm. Books that teach life lessons come to the page with an agenda, and that kind of moralizing in picture books rarely turns out well. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.

The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.

An Example of Preaching and Moralizing

For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:

And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!

You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.

Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.

How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic

Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture book lessons:

If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?

For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.

How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching

The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and any picture book lessons are then delicately layered over and under the plot.

But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.

(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Books that teach life lessons are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

How to Create a Story Opening Line

Your story opening line is what pulls the reader in. 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 novel opening lines from published works and why they work so well.

story opening line, novel opening lines
Your story opening line has the power to draw your reader in. Are you making the most of it?

Story Opening Line: Picture Book

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?

Story Opening Line: Middle Grade

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 (follow the link for more tips on what makes a good novel first line), but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

Story Opening Line: Young Adult

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 novel opening lines have 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 it: an analysis of novel opening lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter for a Children’s Book

Many writers want to know how to write a nonfiction query letter for children’s books. Now, a nonfiction query isn’t entirely different from a fiction one, but there are some nuances. First of all, I have to make the distinction between a nonfiction picture book and nonfiction for older readers. With a nonfiction picture book, you want to have the full text complete. With nonfiction for older readers, you are most likely pitching with a proposal (there are many excellent books on writing nonfiction book proposals, like How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen from Writer’s Digest Books, or The Weekend Book Proposal by Ryan Van Cleave, so, trust me, you really don’t need to hear my thoughts on it).

How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter

In your query, you also have a different objective. With a fiction query, I want you to make me care about your characters and your story. With a nonfiction query, I want to know three things:

  1. What’s cool, different, interesting, or unexpected about your idea?
  2. Why are you the one to write this book?
  3. Why does this book on this topic need to be published now?

So, basically: What is it? Why you? Why now?

First, in a nonfiction book market that is suffering because of library and educational budget cuts, I can sell only the most unique ideas. Do we need yet another Ben Franklin picture book biography? Yet another guide to puberty or friendships or doing well in school for middle grade readers? Probably not. But if you can find a unique twist or a subject that is surprising, interesting, or just dang cool, then you probably have a nonfiction book idea. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you have a nonfiction picture book idea or a cool article, so read more about that issue.)

An example of a cool nonfiction picture book: Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy  by Carrie Jones and Mark Oldroyd. It’s about a girl who pretends to be a boy and joins the Union Army during the Civil War. It’s not a known person from history but it’s someone with a great and unexpected story, and it teaches readers about the Civil War and about the state of women at that time in America.

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A nonfiction query letter case study.

How to Start a Nonfiction Query Letter

For your nonfiction query, start by hooking your reader with what’s unexpected about your story…what unturned stone you’ll be turning over…and then also discuss what the other educational hooks are, like I did when discussing Sarah Emma Edmonds. Not only do you need to sell the reader on why your idea is awesome, you need to give it a larger educational context as well, so that you show the agent or editor that you’ve thought of where in the curriculum your idea might fit.

Building Your Query Letter Case

Next, you will need to keep building your case. Now you need to prove that you are the right person for the job of discussing this subject matter. In fiction queries, your bio isn’t all that important unless your life relates directly to what you’re writing. In a nonfiction query, you need to spend more time establishing your authority on the subject you’re discussing, as well as building your platform. Are you a Civil War reenactor who wants to write about a specific battle or person from the history of the war? Great. Do you keep a popular Civil War reenactor blog? How many visits does it get? Do you travel to over a dozen reenactments a year? Speak to groups of students about the war? Teach a university class on a famous battle? Fabulous! Sounds like you should write a book!

How to Write Bio Information in a Query Letter

For fiction, you don’t really need any qualifications to sit down and start writing. Being alive and wanting to write is enough. In nonfiction, you really do need to convince the agent or editor that you have enough expertise and authority to write about your subject matter, and if you have a media, online, or in-person platform that will help you sell your books, that’s a big consideration. After all, you need a reason to be writing on your particular topic and, once you write nonfiction, you will be seen as an “expert” on it. Make sure you can back that up with proof from your life.

Finally, nonfiction needs a timeliness peg. Is a timely anniversary coming up? Did a new study just come out? Did something just get discovered? An editor will want your idea not only to be cool and written by an expert, they will want something that will be easier to sell to bookstores and libraries, and a hot topic is one of the best markers for nonfiction success in this challenging market.

Sample Nonfiction Query Letter

If I were writing an imaginary nonfiction query example, it would go like the following. And please keep in mind that this is a quick brainstorm, but it demonstrates the basic points I made above:

Dearest Mary,

I’ve enjoyed reading your kidlit blog and just found an article on how to write a nonfiction query letter. Funny, that, because here’s mine! Did you know that there are only four cemeteries in the city of San Francisco? It’s true. All of the other ones were dug up during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and moved outside of city limits because of mass hysteria over contamination [true story]. Now, Colma, CA, directly south of the city, boasts a bigger population of vintage San Francisco corpses than it does living residents. This is just one fun fact from my nonfiction book manuscript Spooky San Francisco. This book will take you on a tour of one of America’s most haunted and interesting cities, from the tunnels under Chinatown to the eerie shuttered hospital on Alcatraz Island (tourists are not allowed, but I’ve been there) [true story…I went yesterday, in fact]. San Francisco will host the America’s Cup sailing race in 2013, so there will be renewed interest in the city just in time for my book.

I grew up in and around San Francisco, have taken ghost tours in seven American cities [true!], and even worked at the Winchester Mystery House [okay, so it was for a day, but my roommate in college worked there for two years and I once got to spend the night with her there, just the two of us, it was awesome], the most haunted site in the Bay Area, so my interest in all things spooky runs deep. Through my network, I have access to all of the haunted sites that I will be showcasing, and have a team of ghost hunters standing by [believe it or not, true!] to help me with my research. The 1,200 word manuscript for Spooky San Francisco details the top ten haunted sites in SF, including the old Presidio Hospital, Alcatraz, Chinatown, the University of San Francisco Lone Mountain campus, and more. If you like this idea, I could take my show on the road and highlight the most haunted sites in other cities like New Orleans, Salem, Savannah, and New York City.

The manuscript is pasted below. This is a simultaneous submission. I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Mary

Query Letter Analysis

Okay, so this is not a very good query, but it illustrates the point of how to write a nonfiction query letter. I’ve tried to hook the reader with some interesting facts, I made a lame attempt at explaining why a book about San Francisco would be timely (to answer the Why now? question…which I don’t do very well because a boat race has nothing at all to do with ghosts…yours should be better). Then I cherry-picked some interesting details about myself that make me sound like somewhat of an expert in the paranormal (again, yours should be better…if yours is as lame as mine, maybe you haven’t found the right nonfiction topic to cover yet).

I’d probably reject this query because it’s not very good and the author, despite having really cute hair, didn’t build a very good case for herself, but, since I’m the same person and since I wrote it in like five minutes as an example, I don’t feel too badly.

Hire me as your query letter editor to come out on top of the slush pile.