A story’s first line is an invitation to the reader. In a few short phrases, the author introduces the subject and tone of the story, creating context and mood. This is particularly true of picture books, where low word counts create even more pressure for an opening line that pulls the reader in. So much pressure can make finding just the right words challenging.
Today, I’m going to show you the transformation of my debut’s opening line. Keep reading to the end for details on a critique GIVEAWAY! (Spoiler: everyone who enters wins!)
Finding the Right Words
When I was getting ready to query the manuscript that became my debut, Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees (illustrated by Turine Tran, out from Capstone on August 1st), I thought I had a solid opening.
The environmentally-focused story, which tells the story of 47,000 Aspen trees connected by their roots to form one of the world’s largest living organisms, began with a somewhat long introduction of the trees and their roots.
Then, I entered the fabulous #PBParty contest, where the submission required only sending the first 50 words. Looking at my first 50 words, I realized that there was no tension in my opening. It was all introduction.
I redesigned and tightened the opening to make the best impression I could–cutting the second paragraph to get to meat of the story sooner. I entered the contest with high hopes, but in a crowded field, I didn’t make it to the final round where agents and editors could request my work.
I was a bit crushed, but I kept going. As I read through the finalists’ entries, I saw that agent Mary Cummings was participating in the contest and was looking for books like mine. Feeling hopeful, I sent her my query with this opening line:
“Thousands of trees stand in one grove
So many trees that you could start counting at dawn
And keep counting until the moon rose.”
But when I heard back from Mary, the opening line was the first thing she wanted to change. She pointed out that my opening lines sounded like an attempt at rhyme. A near-rhyme at the beginning of a non-rhyming story sets the wrong expectations for a reader. This invitation-to-the-reader was for the wrong party.
Looking back at this now, I also see that while it introduces the trees, it doesn’t do much other than that and is a bit overwrought.
With Mary’s feedback, I decided to reimagine my opening (again). I wanted to foreshadow the story’s tension between nature and development. I thought of starting with the image of a highway near the forest. I came up with “Near a highway, a forest stands firm.”
It had tension, and I liked the idea of the forest enduring or “standing firm.” And it was a lot shorter (a plus in my book)! But it didn’t sound quite right to my ear. I wanted an adjective before “highway.” A word to describe its sound. But what? I couldn’t find the right word.
I did what any young(ish) person in 2019 would do. I turned to the internet! In the private Facebook group of the 12×12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, I asked for suggestions to describe the sound of a highway. Someone suggested “humming,” which I loved the alliteration of.
I revised to “Near a humming highway, a forest stands firm.” I sent that opening to Mary, which she liked and submitted to publishers.
After getting an offer from Capstone, I began revisions with my wonderful editor. She suggested adding the word “giant” to give the audience a sense of the size of the forest (while that had been the singular focus of my earlier drafts, it wasn’t even included in my revised opening line). So, I revised one last time.
In the final book, the opening line reads “Near a humming highway, a giant forest stands firm.”
A lot of work for nine words, but finding the right words is always worth the effort!
In celebration of Earth Day, I am giving away critiques of the first 50 words of any manuscript.
All you have to do is pre-order Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees between April 18-22. Send proof of purchase on one of those dates and your first 50 words of your manuscript to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Earth Day Giveaway” in subject line.