What I wish to write about today, actually happened a couple of months ago, just as school was ending. It was my last day to assist in the middle-school library of my son’s school. It was also a scheduled testing day for many students, so the library’s book section was closed.
My job was to man a mobile book site: table, computer/scanner, and a rolling cart full of randomly, librarian-selected books. I was ready. Yet, as the minutes ticked by the halls remained silent with only an occasional squeak of shoes or hushed whispers, but no customers. I tried reading the book I’d brought along, but alas, I was bored. And that was when I had the great idea to conduct an experiment.
I had seventy-nine books on the cart: all fiction books, and all middle grade or young adult in content. My testing method was simple: pick up a book, look at the front cover, skip the synopsis and/or any prologue, and then read only the first paragraph. If the book caught my attention in that opening paragraph, it earned a spot on the top shelf of the cart.
At one point the librarian came out into the hallway to check on me. I noted the quizzical uncertainty on her face and felt compelled to explain why there were books stacked on the table, and an oddly empty book cart, especially the top rack.
What did she say? She gave me a furtive high-five as only a librarian could, and with a conspiratorial smile claimed that I was, “a girl after my own heart.”
With the seal of approval upon me, I quickened my pace–an hour and a half passes quickly when you have a timed goal to complete. I can’t describe what I thought I was looking for, but I knew that I’d know, or feel it when I read it. I finished with literally minutes to spare before my shift was over.
My top shelf was full, and overflowed into the second tier of the cart. It was difficult, but I narrowed my list down to the top twenty-one titles, those that most precisely grabbed me from the first few lines.
Here’s my list:
1)Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
“The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up.”
2)The Lightning Dreamer(written in verse–added commas to note line breaks)by Margarita Engle
“Books are door-shaped, portals, carrying me, across oceans, and centuries, helping me feel, less alone. But my mother believes, that girls who read too much , are unladylike…”
3)The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
“The first time I seen her, I got a bad feeling inside.”
4)The & Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
5)Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
“It was April and all Monticello was stirring, but in their cabin Mama had just put baby Maddy down to sleep and she told Beverly and Harriet to be still.”
6)Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
“When my mother died I imagined God was thinking, ‘One down, and one to go.’”
7)Taken by Edward Bloor
“Once you’ve been taken, you usually have twenty-four hours left to live.”
8)Number 8 by Anna Fienberg
“I think the best number in the whole universe is eight. The way I see it, eight has everything going for it. It’s even, for a start.”
(The first eight are in ranking placement, however the remainder are not in any order of preference.)
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Heartbeat by Sharon Creech
Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine
The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
Spitting Image by Shutta Crum
The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet
by Erin Dionne
Kill Switch by Chris Lynch
Gone by Michael Grant
The Looking Glass War by Frank Beddor
The Battle of the Labyrinth
by Rick Riordan
Door in the Woods by James Dashner
London Calling by Edward Bloor
So what did I learn?
Those first few lines are so important, but they don’t have to be complicated. They are the gatekeepers into the story, and only need to stand tall, firm and singular. Be inconspicuously vague in the everyday details, but uniquely brazen in the precision of telling the tale. Don’t hold back. Make me extremely curious!
Keep the words simple, but the thoughts so precisely complex so that they belong only to this story, this character, and the moment in time that you are revealing to the reader. What you say must ring true, and if you try too hard, add too much, too soon, you’ve lost me.
The first paragraph, or the story’s beginning, should offer a promise. The promise: It’s that connection between the reader and the writer(narrator), the invisible, timeless contract of whispered truths to come.
Personally, I prefer first-person narration in stories(and my writing). Less than a handful of the above mentioned books were written in third person.
Obviously, I’m not too good at keeping up with this blog. However, I do “write” blog posts, but mostly in my head–although I’ve taken notes and at some time in the future plan to share them. Right now it seems more important to write, and finish my current project, Sky.
Speaking of Sky, I’m in the process of its transcription into computer files, as well as editing/revision along the way. My goal is to be done with this process around the time school starts, and then move on to a second hearty round of editing. I’d love to be done with the entire project by October/November. Eh?
The poem I posted last year on this site, “Shame,” will be published the week of August 24th via a great site: http://www.thevoicesproject.org! Oddly, I receive the most random traffic to this blog because of that poem, so I wanted to have it officially accepted/published somewhere before someone tried to plagiarize it off of my site. (Not that this would prevent such things, but still, makes me feel better regardless.)
I have one non-fiction short story and one new poem out there in the world, awaiting either rejection or acceptance. At this point I still have naive hope that both will be given the latter.
One of my planned, upcoming/someday blog post will be about my writing group. I started the small group at the beginning of the year, just for local moms. It’s been such a great experience and a wonderful way to promote more writing in my life, as well as to encourage other moms.
I’m still reading as much as I can, to improve my writing. I’m almost done with Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home–there’s hidden wisdom between the lines.
That’s all, folks! For more frequent, less loquacious updates, please like my Facebook page: