In my last post, FIRST LINES; YOU ONLY GET ONE CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION, I blogged about first lines in differing genres. In some recent conferences I attended, first lines in longer works was a subject that came up more than once. It seems “the hook” is a tool used more and more by today’s novelists to snare you and drag you into their work right from the very start. As someone who has written mostly picture book manuscripts, I wondered how this technique plays out in shorter pieces. In my humble opinion, I think the first line of an 800 word or less story must have every bit of impact as it does in a full-length novel and then some. In a picture book, every word must be chosen carefully and be important toward moving the story along. After all, there is no room for heavy description, back story, or explanations. You must tell a strong, compelling tale in a simple, straightforward form. And yet, amidst that simplicity, there must be fun and excitement. Not an easy task. Therefore, grabbing your audience from the get-go seems like a no brainer. The picture book market is tough right now. The economy has thrown in its own wrench and competition is fierce. If you want your wok to catch the eye of and editor or agent in these tough times, you need to get them on the hook before they even have a chance to swallow the bait.
In my last post, I listed the first lines from numerous picture books taken from my own bookshelf. What did you think? Did they all grab your attention and make you want to read on, or did some fall short? I realize this is a subjective exercise, but I’d like to share my assessments with you. Remember, these books are ones I have purchased and enjoy. (Which means I’m a fan of all them.) I want to look at these first lines as though I am an editor/agent and have just pulled them from my slush pile. Remember, I’ve got lots to go through and my time is valuable. In order for me to continue reading and considering, there has to be something in these first lines that grabs me. (I’m liking this role way too much. Pinch me and remind me who I really am.) So here goes:
WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT by Michael Rosen: We’re going on a bear hunt.
*Same as the title. Doesn’t hook me, but makes me think that I haven’t given it a chance, so I would probably read a little more to see where it’s going.
THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle: In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.
*This one piques my curiosity; especially if I look at it from a child’s viewpoint. Little kids think of eggs in terms of birds and nests. I think they would want to know what an egg is doing laying on a leaf at night. I probably would continue.
GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown: In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon.
*Other than the musical quality of this line, I think it is rather boring. Not much is happening and there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Not sure I’d continue. Don’t see a hook here. (And boy would I be wrong! This is a classic favorite!)
SNOWMEN AT NIGHT BY Carolyn Buehner: One wintry day I made a snowman, very round and tall.
*This is a tough one. I think for stories in verse, it is not so much the first line, but the whole first verse which should be considered. This first line doesn’t have much impact, but the second line, which is part of the first verse, definitely piques my curiosity and makes me want to read more: “The next day when I saw him, he was not the same at all!”
I LOVE YOU STINKY FACE by Lisa McCourt: Mama said, “I love you, my wonderful child.”
*This is a really cute book. I love it and my kids love it, but this first line is dull. No hook.
BEAR SNORES ON by Karma Wilson: In a cave in the woods, in his deep, dark lair, through the long, cold winter sleeps a great brown bear.
*Although there isn’t much happening here, the way it was written really catches my interest. I want to read on to find out what goes on in that deep, dark lair! I’m hooked.
THE CAT IN THE HAT BY Dr. Seuss: The sun did not shine.
*This book is written in verse too. However, nothing about the first sentence has a musical or lyrical quality to it that would make me realize this. Taking only that first simple sentence into consideration, I’d say, no hook. But if I consider the whole first verse, written in three simple sentences, it does make me wonder what these kids are going to do to liven up the day. Here’s the whole verse: The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.
STREGA NONA by Tomie dePaola: In a town in Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant “Grandma Witch.”
*This seems like a lot of information thrown into one sentence, but the “witch” part did catch my attention.
FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor: I love being fancy.
*This is the opposite of the above. It seems kind of vague. However, I can’t help but wonder where this is going and am compelled to continue. I’m hooked.
HENRY’S FREEDOM BOX by Ellen Levine: Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was.
*What kind of person doesn’t know how old he is? I must read on and find out. Hooked.
THE WRIGGLY, WRIGGLY BABY by Jessica Clerk: Once there was a baby who wriggled real bad.
*This is also a book written in verse and the first line is only part of that first verse. But even so, this first line has got me wondering about this wriggly baby. I want to find out more. Hooked.
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! By Dr. Seuss: Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville, did NOT!
*The hook is sunk deep for this one. Of course I must read on. I have to find out who on earth is the Grinch and how could he possibly not love Christmas?!!! This is the best first line of all the books listed.
AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE by Pam Munoz Ryan: Amelia and Eleanor were birds of a feather.
*Not a very compelling hook, but a hook nonetheless. At this point I’m not sure who Amelia and Eleanor are, but I am curious to know what makes them birds of a feather.
HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOOD NIGHT? By Jane Yolen: How does a dinosaur say good night when Papa comes in to turn off the light?
*Well, I don’t think this hook has caught me by the throat, but it definitely captures my curiosity. I mean, how does a dinosaur say goodnight? And do they have fathers who tuck them in?!
YOU FORGOT YOUR SKIRT, AMELIA BLOOMER! By Shana Corey: Amelia Bloomer was NOT a proper lady.
*Who was Amelia Bloomer and what did she do that was improper? I’m hooked, tell me more.
And of course, my own first line from NATURE’S LULLABY: “Hurry,” Grandpa whispered, “the night creatures are getting ready to sing!”
*Okay, as I’ve mentioned, this first lines thing is new to me. When I started looking at first lines, I didn’t even remember what the opening line of my book was, or how I’d fare. Needless to say, I think I did fairly well. Grandpa is obviously hurrying someone along and he’s whispering, so he’s definitely got my attention. But now I also need to find out about the night creatures are and why they are singing. Hopefully you want to know too. If so, you can buy my book and I’ll happily send you an autographed copy! (She shamelessly plugs her own work.)
All in all, I thought this was an interesting exercise and I enjoyed applying it to the PB genre. I think it gave me a small glimpse into what editors/agents might look for when they pick up a manuscript, knowing they have hundreds more to sift through. Not an easy job. Something needs to stand out in order for them to keep reading. And yet, sometimes, because of a bad first line, they just might end up passing on the next HARRY POTTER. (I would have passed on GOODNIGHT MOON and we all know how that one turned out.) Let’s face it, not all best sellers have killer beginnings. Editors/Agents aren’t infallible. They, like us writers, are only human.
So what I’ve learned and what I hope to pass on to you is that we absolutely MUST hook that editor/agent from the get-go if we want a fair shake. From the very first line we NEED to make them want more. There’s an old saying that says, “leave them begging for more.” As a writer competing in this difficult bunny eat bunny world of publishing, that must be our motto. For every word you write, for every story you conceive, put it together in such a way that you’ve left them begging for more. After all, once that awesome book makes the NYT Bestseller list, there could always be room for a sequel!
-Niki Masse Schoenfeldt