RhyPiBoMo 2015 Day 22
I am please to introduce
today’s guest blogger
How To Get Your Readers Past Line One
First lines are like fangs.
They break your readers’ skin, take hold deep within, and draw them — willingly or not — into your world.
I asked Angie to skip her customary guest introduction so that I could illustrate a key point about first lines. As the author of this post, displaced by time and space, I had absolutely no idea what you as the reader would have been doing one minute ago. Some of you might have just made a pot of coffee, others of you might have just finished a meeting, still others might have laid a kid down to nap or hopped on a bus or sat on a toilet. How could I have known?
What I did know is that I needed a strong first line that would give me a chance of grabbing and keeping your attention regardless of your point of entry. Whether or not you would even “like” my sharp-toothed opening didn’t matter to me – what mattered was that you wouldn’t keep scrolling right to Angie’s next post. That you wouldn’t bounce to another website or app. That you wouldn’t put down your device completely. That you would stay with me until line two.
I like to believe that, from line two until the end of a poem or story, writers can control readers’ minds. We set up scenes, cast doubts, foreshadow conflicts, etc., each element placed perfectly after last and before next. Once readers are in, they’re in, and they submit themselves to our whims. But before that, between real life and line one, we have no such control. We first have to coerce it away.
This, in and of itself, is not a revelation. However, if you audit the children’s poems and picture books in your house/library/bookstore – and perhaps your own manuscripts, too – you may notice that these types of works often miss their opportunity to hook readers right there on line one. It is as if authors take for granted that they already have readers’ full attention, and that readers WILL read each poem or story in its entirety, when one or both of these may be untrue.
I first shared this observation with the Poetry Friday community a few years back, and posed the open question http://www.thinkkidthink.com/are-the-first-lines-of-kids-poems-memorable/ Are the First Lines of Kids’ Poems Memorable? This sparked an interesting conversation and elicited many examples of first lines that readers perceived as “compelling, urgent, and/or unusual” – three criteria proposed elsewhere as characteristics of a great first line. (If you haven’t read that post or the comments below it, you may wish to do so quickly now, but make sure you come back!)
Since then, I have paid much closer attention to how poets and picture book authors begin their works. One excellent (and efficient) way to experience first lines in action is to browse children’s poetry anthologies. Not only do most anthologies feature a wide variety of poets and styles, many also include a gift-wrapped package near the end of the book called an “Index of First Lines.” Every once in awhile, I like to open an anthology to this index and just read the first lines, one after the other, until I come across one that I can’t help but flip back to continue reading the rest of the poem immediately (because when a first line is really good I CAN’T NOT read the rest). After reading it, I reflect on why I chose that poem in that moment. What about that single line drew me to that poem? I didn’t know the author, couldn’t read the title, had no sense of form or length, could see no accompanying photo or illustration. I had nothing to go on … except that magical first line. What made it so special to me?
While classifying great first lines as “compelling, urgent, and/or unusual” holds up in abstract, as I reenact my readings of great first lines in my head, I find that those terms do not truly describe my experiences in those moments, which are always much more concrete. These firsthand emotions, reactions, and thoughts are (by definition) impossible to summarize in a handful of terms, so what may be more helpful is to start looking at some examples.
Here is the Index of First Lines from the anthology Forget-Me-Nots, edited by Mary Ann Hoberman:
My experiences from these first lines included:
• Imagining an origami world. An origami universe!
• Fearing going down that horrible street, but wanting a quick peek to see why it is so horrible.
• Predicting whether or not she’s gonna go talk to the famous man eating soup or not …
• Wanting to meet this promiscuous Jenny girl.
• Imagining slowly sinking my feet into that dark brown river …
• Picturing myself holding the actual earth in my hands, with the moon on one side and beaming, rising sun on the other. What power I have!
Here’s another, the Index of First Lines from the anthology Climb Into My Lap, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins:
My experiences from these first lines included:
• Remembering all of the times I’ve drawn chalk pictures all over my sidewalks at home.
• Picturing a cartoon-like stick figure dog that’s actually a real-life dog. How skinny is he, really?
• Thinking of all different kinds of skin – slimy fish skin, soft baby skin, leathery sunburnt skin, etc.
• Being transported mid-climb into a tree in front of my old house.
• Closing my eyes, willing those talkers to Just. Stop. Talking.
• Mumbling “What the heck does ‘brillig’ mean? And what are ‘slithy toves’?”
And finally, this is the Index of First Lines from the anthology A Family of Poems edited by Caroline Kennedy:
My experiences with these first lines included:
• Imagining how this hound is going to deal with that porcupine …
• Wondering just who is this tough kid talking to and why is he addressing him as “Sir”?
• Realizing I have no idea what masons do when they start upon a building. What do they do???
• Sighing and agreeing YES – please compare me to a summer’s day …
• Picturing wind in all of its manifestations – leaves blowing wildly, flags waving, umbrellas flipping inside out …
• Trying to conceive of how maggie and milly and molly and may all came to be together …
Those were just a few of my first line experiences. What about YOU? Among those shown above, which first lines spoke to you? Which did you just gloss right over or, worse yet, actively dismiss? Did any of them make you start writing your own line two right there in your head? Did any of them send you off into full-on daydreams? Are any of them still driving you crazy because you don’t have the book in front of you right NOW?!?!?
THAT is the reaction you need to strive for in your first lines. Make readers want more. Drive them crazy. If I’m holding your book in a store and randomly open it to page 18, then the poem on page 18 better start with a great first line. If not, then I’ll probably flip to page 19 and see what’s there. If I’m still not feeling it, maybe I jump to another page and read one more opening. But if that still doesn’t pull me in, then that book is probably going back on the shelf … never to be picked up again.
Picture book authors: This applies to you, too. When I pick up a book off the shelf (or get a sneak preview online or whatever) and read your first page – it had better be good! The hardest part is over – I am already holding your book in my hands, and I am committed to reading page one. But it’s on you to get me to page two.
I have one final point for you to consider: New technologies will likely make first lines even more critical for authors as time goes on. Though I haven’t yet found any software products/sites/apps that are delivering tremendous value to readers in the poetry or picture book space, they are getting better, and the “search and discovery” space will continue to heat up. For now, I’ll use the current Poetry Foundation app as a rough example of where I think things are headed …
Get the App
Here I typed only the keyword “thief” and twenty-six poems came up. It’s a smartphone app, so screen real estate is at a premium, so I had to choose one – and only one – way to view the poems. When I tapped First Line, this is what I saw, a straight list of first lines. Naked. Alone. Exposed. The only thing left to do is to scroll up, scroll down, or tap to read a poem.
Which first line will sink its fangs into my neck first?
Founder of Think, Kid, Think! January 2012
– Launched March Madness Poetry (#MMPoetry), an “epic event” that has been embraced by a global community of kids’ poetry writers and fans.
– Generated over 400,000 site visits, 20,000 Facebook likes, and nearly 8,000 reader comments in just twelve weeks (March 2012, 2013, and 2014 combined). Growing 50-60% year over year — all word of mouth.
– Featured on CBS TV, in USA Today, The Boston Globe, poetryfoundation.org, scbwi.org, poetry4kids.com, and countless other smaller newspapers, websites, and blogs.
– More fun in the works. Stay tuned!
Thank you Ed!
I have known Ed through The #MMPoetry Contest for the past two years as a contestant. He is unbelievably great with poetry and numbers as he runs this amazing contest beginning with 64 “Authletes” and ending with one final winner, in a matter of a few weeks. There are kids in classrooms voting, the public votes and even the Authletes vote in a bracket style competition, to determine winners each round. I am always amazed at the amount of balls he must be juggling throughout this process, and he has a full-time job too! WOW!
I am proud to say that last year I applied and was accepted into the contest, losing my first round to a wonderful author, Elizabeth McBride . This year, again I was accepted and made it through 2 rounds before going down to Carol Samuelson-Woodson with my word “funereal.” Try using that in a kids poem! LOL
It is great fun and I’ve enjoyed participating both years. Maybe the blessing for me is in the losing, as RhyPiBoMo is steaming full speed ahead, mid March, about the time Round 3 begins…at least I’m consoled knowing that losing eases my stress level! Ha!
You must all check it out next year! Sometimes a little pressure is good for our writing!
RhyPiBoMo 2015 Optional Writing Prompt: 22
This is NOT part of the pledge. It is an option for a writing exercise for those interested. You will not publically share this as part of RhyPiBoMo but may keep a journal of your writing this month for your own review.
Today’s writing prompt is to pull out your favorite manuscripts and poems.
1) Make a list of the first lines.
2) Now, use your fangs…write new first lines that will kiss your reader, vampire style, and not let them go!
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55 thoughts on “RhyPiBoMo 2015 Day 22 Ed DeCaria”
Thanks for the reminder. I have some revising to do!
Sandy Powell — Wow! A lot of information. I am excited to check out all your examples of first lines. Thanks for a great post!
I’d love to see what this March Madness Poetry thing is about. Anything involving “Authletes” sounds like a great time. As far as which first line bit me the hardest, mine was, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night.” To what strange creatures do these names belong, and what are they up to? I must know!
Terrific opening line to your post, Ed, and the perfect way to demonstrate your point. I’m going to pull out some anthologies to check out some opening lines! Thanks for a really helpful post.