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Muselings June 2009

               Let's Start at the Very Beginning...



A novice called Maria once admonished curtain-draped kids to “start at the very beginning…” As writers for children, we fully understand the importance of beginnings, of the need to hook our readers into the tale we’re spinning. We know we have about ten  seconds to grab children's attention before they wander to the next book on the shelf.


That knowledge is often at war with our need to introduce our main character, and to set the time and place. As writers, we are so eager to explain our delicious secrets, we forget we may be overwhelming young readers with back story or description. Is it possible to craft an intriguing beginning AND introduce characters and setting?


Yes! The challenge is to craft an opening paragraph which reveals information about setting and characters, without using overt description. Laura Backes (Write4Kids) advises writers to “begin the story with action or dialogue. That pulls the reader in faster than description.”  Laura goes on to say, “the point in the plot where you begin is very important. You want to start at or very near that moment where everyday life changes for your character from ordinary to extraordinary. The story should encompass an extraordinary period in your character's life (Who wants to read about everyday, normal events?) and so your opening should be a lead-in to that moment where life changes.”


I am currently creating my new middle grade novel. I'm still at the plotting and preparation stage, delighting in my world-building and “what-ifs”. When I started roughing out chapter summaries, I realised my first chapter started with the lead-up to the adventure, giving details of relationships and characters through dialogue, internal thought and some narrative. Did it start at the life-changing moment for my main character? Um, no, the life-changing moment is actually due to come halfway through chapter two. Oops!


One way to improve our skills in writing beginnings is to research the way other authors do it. Take a morning off, go to your local library or bookstore, and read beginnings. Which ones grab your attention? Why? How? Try to pinpoint exactly what it is that hooks you and makes you want to keep reading. How have the authors started their stories – with action, dialogue, narrative? With commands, improbabilities or metaphors?


Here are some great beginnings from books I've reviewed recently at the Book Chook blog:


How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham: “High above the city, no one heard a soft thud of feathers against glass.”


Where does Thursday go? by Janeen Brian: “It was Thursday. Splodge's birthday! What fun they all had.”


Judy Moody Predicts the Future by Megan McDonald: “Judy Moody ate one, two, three bowls of cereal. No prize. She poured four, five, six bowls of cereal. Nothing. Seven. Out fell the Mystery Prize.”


White Crane (Samurai Kids) by Sandy Fussell: “'Aye-eee-yah!' I scissor kick as high as I can and land on my right foot. I haven't got another one. My name is Niya Moto and I'm the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan.”


What child could resist a beginning with in-built suspense like the first two paragraphs of Out on the Ice in the Middle of the Bay by Peter Cummings (Annick Press)? Little Leah’s father tells her NOT to go outside because there are polar bears nearby, and promptly falls asleep.  Can you guess what Leah does? Young readers become entranced with Leah’s subsequent encounter with Nanook, the baby polar bear.


In the Franklin books, author Paulette Bourgeois uses cumulative repetition in many of her beginnings to make young readers feel comfortable and able to relate to her young turtle character. In Franklin’s School Play (Kids Can Press, Toronto), we find that even though Franklin has a great memory for shapes and counting, as told in other books in this delightful series, right now he is worried about forgetting his lines in the forthcoming school play. Other beginnings in the “Franklin” books similarly cut straight to the chase, reminding us what Franklin CAN do, but explaining his current conflict.


A beginning should be an enticement to keep reading. It should pique a child’s curiosity, have him wondering “why?” and “what next?” But hooking his interest alone is not enough. How disappointing for a reader if the rest of the story doesn’t live up to that beginning’s promise! Our beginnings must set the scene for more great writing – writing that’s active, tight and engrossing for the length of the story. Write on!




Have you been to these sites?

Grab Literacy Lava, my free pdf, erupting with tips for parents to encourage kids to read, write and create.

I was published in an anthology recently, The Ultimate Teacher. There are some calls for submissions to new anthologies, The Ultimate Pastor, The Ultimate Runner, The Ultimate Bird Lover.

Just for fun! Micro-masterpieces – six word summaries of great books. I liked: “The Hobbit: furry short creature saves the world”.

miniWORDS Contest: Free entry. Submit on site. 50 words or less. 250 prize. Closes August 10, 2009. For ages 14+.

Writing guidelines for Jack and Jill, Turtle and Humpty Dumpty's Magazine.




Until next time, write on!