Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Guest Blogger - Children's Book Author, Ann Whitford Paul

Today's weather for St. Peters, MO: Mostly sunny, high 99 degrees. "It's a heat wave! Yea, yea, yea, yea!"

Today we have a special treat. As part of the WOW! Blog Tour, Ann Whitford Paul is the guest blogger on Donna's Book Pub. Ann's book, WRITING PICTURE BOOKS: A HANDS-ONGUIDE FROM STORY CREATION TO PUBLICATION, was published by Writer’s Digest Books last month.

Have you ever thought you’d like to write a picture book, but don’t know where to begin? Have you been submitting stories, but getting only form rejections? Ann's book covers picture book form, structure, language and the business side too. She helps writers learn how to revise their manuscripts into a polished and publishable story.

Even if you don't write picture books, Ann's advice can help you become a better writer. Here's what Ann has to say about "Grabbing Your Reader with the First Line":

Whether you’re writing for adults, or as I do for children, your first line is critical. It may be the only chance you get in this hectic world of grabbing the reader. Successful opening lines feel so right and natural you might think they wrote themselves, but I suspect each author spent many hours experimenting with different ones.

If your first sentence feels flat, play around and see if you can make it more lively. The most helpful way I’ve found is to experiment with your focus of that line.

Consider this first line: There was an old sow with three little pigs, and as she had not enough to keep them, she sent them out to seek their fortune from an old version of The Story of the Three Little Pigs.

Traditionally the writer might start grounding the reader with the time the story is happening . . . Once upon a time or Long ago and far away or When Pigs could talk.

She might work instead to set a mood . . .
The old sow blinked away tears as her three little pigs disappeared down the
road . . . forever or . . . The three little pigs clicked their hooves and skipped down the road to seek their fortunes. Or . . . The three little pigs lingered for a long while saying their last good-byes to Mother.

Then the writer could focus on the setting.
Anyone who saw the old sow’s house with its saggy roof, peeling paint and broken windows knew she couldn’t feed her three little pigs much longer. Or . . . At the end of the lane, under the tall oak tree, the old sow waved goodbye to her three little pigs.

She might open with an opinion.
What on earth could that old sow have been thinking, sending her three little pigs to find their fortunes alone in the cruel world? Or . . . Some pigs will do anything they can to avoid work . . . like building a house out of sticks and thinking it will last forever.

She could also try a provocative statement . . .
The three little pigs were turned out of their home and nothing could change that. Or . . . Pigs are stupid and you can’t say anything to make me think otherwise.

The best way to involve the reader is to cut out introductory and back-story material and begin with an action that changes something for the characters and compels the story forward . . . “I’ll remember you always,” the old sow called to her little pigs as she waved goodbye. Or . . . “You mean I can’t live with you forever,” cried the littlest pig.

It’s even better to quickly show conflict.
The three little pigs begged their mother, “Don’t make us leave.” Or . . . “I can’t keep you here,” Mother said to her three little pigs, “and that’s that!”

Sometimes background is critical so the writer could open with a scrapbook showing pictures of the piglets as newborns, blowing out birthday candles and then waving good-bye to Mother. Then the words start with what happens to them after they set out on their own.

A newspaper article could blare the headline . . . HUNGRY WOLF ON THE PROWL.

A journal entry might be:
October 1st. Today is the day Mother sent us away to find our fortunes.

A letter might begin:
Dear Mother,
We thought you’d like to know how we’ve been faring since we last saw you.

Play around with different approaches to your first line, but if you still have trouble coming up with a great one don’t be discouraged.

Blaise Pascal said, “That last thing one discovers in writing a book is what to put first.”

Set your opening aside, finish your story or book and then come back to it with a fresh new mind. Know that no time is wasted working to create the best ever opening sentence.

If you have any questions or comments for Ann, please leave them in the comment section below. Everyone who leaves a question or comment will be entered in the "Pick Which Book You Win" contest. One winner will be selected to pick between Ann's most recent books--Word Builder or Writing Picture Books.


  1. Hello Ann & Donna!

    The opening line is a terrific topic and I loved your various interpretations of a classic story.

    When writing a picture book, do authors often submit artwork or photos as well, or do they rely on the publisher to supply the art (assuming of course the story is taken!)


  2. I've been playing with a children's story and although I always consider first lines in adult fiction I never gave it much thought in children's. I've got a lot to learn--hope I win the book.

  3. Wonderful advice! I never would have thought the first line in a childrens' book would be as important as in an adult book. But it makes sense.

    Thank you!

    Best of luck with your book!


  4. Oh, shoot! Everytime I think I'm finished with my children's book... Reading Ann's versions of first lines made me think of MY first line and I think I'll do just one more little tweak :-) Really like the way Ann not only shares great advice but also thoroughly explains with examples. Thanks!

  5. Love this blog post! I've done a similar exercise with my students when I taught elementary school writing. The beginning is so important and there are so many ways to write it. :) Of course, once we get the beginning perfect, then what about the rest of the book? :) Thanks again for this post, Ann and Donna, and to show that writing for kids is not as easy as people think it is. I look forward to hosting you on my blog, Ann! Thanks, Margo (Read These Books and Use Them)

  6. Great! Revisions teach us that it isn't a sin to rephrase our precious sentences. The beginning is like a horse race - coming out the chute fast and running, may determine if we win or lose.

  7. It's good when published writers reaffirm that writers spend hours crafting their first sentence. I think sometimes we forget that part of our craft can be exhilirating instead of exhausting. And it makes you realize that writing is not automatic, it requires reflection and revision.

  8. Donna: thank for hosting! Ann: Great tips on grabbing readers. Like Margo Dill, I will use these prompts for my young writing students who often need that jump start! (Like we all do!) I'm very interested in picking up your Word Builder book ,as well (unless I'm a random lucky winner!)
    Mary Jo Campbell

  9. In answer to Pat's question . . . unless you're an illustrator don't submit illustrations. Your manuscript should stand on its own with lots of picture possibilities. Publishers have huge files of illustrators that might be better for your work than the one you submitted. If you are a beginning writer, it's wise marketing to pair your words with a well-established illustrator.
    By submitting with illustrations, you are giving the editor an easy out to rejecting your story. Suppose they like your story but don't like your pictures . . . good-bye to both.
    Suppose they love the pictures but not your story . . . goodbye to both again.
    If you feel compelled to include illustrations, please discuss with the illustrator before submission so that each of your work can be sold separately. Then share this with the editor.
    Also don't feel you have to give directions as to where illustrations should come and especially no suggestions to the illustrator about what the pictures should be.
    Illustrators are incredibly talented. Trust their ability to add and improve your story.

  10. Thanks, Ann, for such a wonderful post and for answering my visitors' questions. And thanks to everyone who left a comment or question for Ann on my blog, as well as those who e-mailed their comments to me.


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