One Writer’s Journey

January 10, 2019

Picture Books: Opening with a Strong Hook

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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The vast majority of picture books are 500 words or less. That means that a picture book author has 500 words to pack in character, story problem, setting, tone and a hook.  For those of you who don’t know the term, a hook is how you, literally, hood the reader.  What makes them want to read on?  The answer to this question varies from book to book.
The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier opens with:
Ruby’s mind
was always
full of ideas.
This beginning gives the reader two things – character and story problem.  How so?  From 7 words we learn that Ruby is a thinker, an idea person.  Because this is what Maier begins the story with, we assume correctly that this will have something to do with the story problem.  Firming up this assumption is the fact that the illustration shows Ruby sitting on the toilet lid with an easel and tablet beside her as she plans a project of some kind.  This kid has personality and I want to read on.
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty begins with:
I want to be a
cat.  (This is said by a young frog)
You can’t be a cat.  (This is said by an adult frog/Dad)
This opening text sets the tone, showing us that this one is obviously going to be humorous.  We learn that the character is not content being himself and that his parents aren’t sure how to handle it.  That’s both character and story problem.  Young characters setting their own boundaries? That’s going to hook young readers who love the idea as well as parents who are all too familiar with the situation.
Nonfiction books or fiction that covers an unfamiliar topic can be tricky.
In Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designers Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear the first spread states:
Every story starts somewhere.
My story begins on September 10, 1890 in a beautiful
palazzo in the center of Rome. That’s in Italy.
Imagine a quiet room. Imagine a newborn baby looking up to see
her pappa frowning, her momma frowning.
When I read this book, I didn’t have clue #1 who Elsa Schiaparelli is.  Not one clue.  So the author begins with something that even clueless people like me can comprehend, babies are born.  Ta-da!  But even this simple event is going to prove problematic in this particular nonfiction story.  All this baby has done is come into the world and already mom and dad are unhappy.  Tone.  Story problem.  Setting.  And we went to read on to find out what is wrong.
With their tight word counts, picture books have to do everything a novel does but do it in less space.  Because of this, they have to start establishing story elements even as they hook the reader.

November 17, 2015

Surprise Your Reader

facts surpriseWhether you are writing fiction or nonfiction it is important to occasionally surprise your reader.  After all, you don’t want your writing to be predictable.  Surprise endings and surprises at picture book page turns are two ways to do this.  But the way that I’m most familiar with is to choose surprising facts for your nonfiction.

One way that I do this is to come up with surprising child-friendly comparisons.  How much space does something take up?  I calculate how many backpacks it would fill.  I’ve also used school buses and dinner plates to compare size.

Then there are those facts that are just surprising.  Take for example when you have a famous scientist who was hired because she had no background in science.  Yes, she later acquired the background but at the start?  No education, no experience.  And that’s exactly why she got the job.  Not that my editor was ready to believe it.  She left me a note in the manuscript — “Is this true?”  I’m always tempted to respond back “no, I just made it up to see how closely you were reading” but I don’t.  I just take a screen clipping of the source and paste it into a comment of my own.

When you write nonfiction and use surprising facts, you can find yourself defending those facts with your editor.  Why?  Because they’re surprising, people are inclined to question them.

So be ready.  Surprising facts hook and engage your reader but there will most likely be a lot of back-and-forth with your editor.  Yes, that’s her name.  Yes, that’s how this discovery was made.  No, women are still not allowed on that golf course.  Yes, he called her that even in this day and age. How could I make something like that up?



July 8, 2015

Building a Bridge

Rowling excelled at building bridges for her readers.

Rowling excelled at building bridges for her readers.

One of the keys to writing strong fiction and nonfiction is bridge building.  The fact of the matter is that any time you write about something that is unfamiliar, you have to build a bridge.  It doesn’t matter if you are writing nonfiction about a unfamiliar time period or fiction about a made up world, you have to build a bridge to give your reader access to this strange world that you laid out before them.

You build this bridge by giving the reader something familiar and recognizable.

This means that even if your characters are all giant bird-like creatures who communicate through ESP, you have to include something your reader will get.  One of the best ways to do this is through familiar problems or emotions.  Perhaps your bird-like protagonist doesn’t want to follow in mom and dad’s footsteps or she’s worried about not being as strong or fast as the others.  Anxiety or fear of disappointing a parent are both emotions that your reader will understand.

You can also insert a familiar element in an unfamiliar setting or situation.  The world of Harry Potter seemed strange and unique but it still had boarding schools, an element of British culture with which readers would immediately be familiar.  Young fans of the Avengers may not have super powers but the sibling-like jealousy and squabbling between the heroes?  That they understand.

Not only do they understand, they empathize because these are the kinds of things they’ve experienced in their own lives.  Using these kinds of elements you’ve made your characters sympathetic and recognizable even if they are feathered and never touch the ground.  Even as you set about creating a wonderful new world, be sure to keep your eyes open for the bridges that will let your reader follow you so that they too can enjoy the story.



September 11, 2013

Reader Expectations

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:09 am
Tags: , ,
A blog opening is a contract with your reader. Use it wisely.

A blog opening is a contract with your reader. Use it wisely.

I’ve noticed a recent trend on some of the blogs I read.  If the blogger has a new book, he opens his blog posts with:

  • The cover image
  • The title and other identifying info
  • A blurb about the book

When they do this, I assume this is another blog post about the book.  That’s what opening with the above says to me.  “Hi, this is a post about my book.”  If I’ve already read several posts about the book or read the book itself, I’m fairly likely to skip this blog post.   Why?  

Maybe other people are going to check the entire post just to be sure, but I read a lot of blogs.  I go through 150-200 posts a day.  When I see the same lead on consecutive days, I assume there was an error of some kind resulting in a duplicate post and I hit “next.”  I don’t scroll through the entire post.

Your opening is a promise to your reader.  Your initial image, your opening lines and your title.  They tell your reader what to expect.   I’m not sure how often I skipped posts on a wide variety of topics before I realized that these bloggers were opening with advertising before moving on to their posts.

Want readers to check out your entire post?  Give them something new and relevant and make it clear from the start.  It’s what keeps them reading.


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