Friday, July 8, 2016

Friday Feedback: First Lines with Nora Raleigh Baskin

Nora and I recently met to work on our #nerdcampMI
presentation and a few of the librarians were
ridiculously excited to know Nora was there.

Morning, shiny campers!

Or, afternoon, if you slept in  -- okay, fine, or worked in!

Today, I have one of my closest friends, Nora Raleigh Baskin, here hosting, and let me just say, whether you know it or not, that was a really cool sentence I just got to type. 

I mean, REALLY cool.

I only met Nora a few years back at a book event and was kind of starstruck as she was the well-known (I'd say famous, but she'd balk) author of so many beloved books, from ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL to IN THE COMPANY OF CRAZIES to RUNT.

Although we immediately hit it off, I couldn't foresee that two "9/11" books (her NINE, TEN and my forthcoming THE MEMORY OF THINGS) would bring us truly together, and make us the best (right, Nora? Best?!) of friends.

For the last several months, Nora and I have been working hard together to create a profound (we hope) school, library and general public (and upcoming #nerdcampMI!) presentation on Coping with Tragedy through a Writer's Lens, which incorporates the whys and hows of writing on  9/11, the extensive research we did to get our books right, some literary dealings, and what we hope  -- and trust  -- our readers will take from our stories. 

We will also be sharing our many events and school visits under the #readandremember hashtag on twitter, and invite you to join us in using the hashtag if you read and love our books and want to share. 

At any rate, Nora's extraordinary middle grade novel NINE, TEN: A September 11 Story was just released to two starred reviews and many other amazing accolades I'm so lucky and honored to work with her. 

Please feel free to email either of us if you are interested in bringing our presentation (or us individually) to your school. And, if you teach middle graders, I strongly urge you to bring this stunning book into your classroom. No, really. Here you go. Right now! I also urge you to peek in on Nora's virtual launch of NINE, TEN on Facebook and share some of your own 9/11 stories. . . still postings taking place there and they are all so very moving!

So, without further ado, here's Nora with a really amazing and generous lesson on first lines. 

p.s. Wonderful accompanying illustrations done by her father, Henry P. Raleigh!!!

"Your first sentence should make a promise that 
the rest of the story will keep"
-- Francine Prose       

First Lines

            I often introduce this “First Lines” exercise when I am teaching kids (or adults) and I know my students don’t feel like writing very much that day. It’s a low-risk writing exercise. 
            One line. What do you have to lose?
             All you have to do is write the first line of a story that you never have to finish.
            In fact, you aren’t suppose to finish. It’s just one teeny, weeny sentence.
            How hard could that be?
            It isn’t hard! It’s fun and easy, and the best part is how much information is hidden inside this exercise.  (No, actually the best part are the amazing first lines that can arise from doing it.)  In this “lesson,” I secretly implant my best advice for good writing.  You can use this “first line” exercise as a jumping off/writing prompt.
            If you have a WIP, I suggest you take a look at your first sentence after you’ve read this post and see if you don’t want to rewrite your first line (or even reevaluate your first paragraph scene/chapter.)
            So here’s how it goes. . .
Wait, brief disclaimer:
            What I am about to tell you, is my opinion. These are some “rules” that I have discovered and gathered, in my sixteen years of publishing, that work for ME. But I don't have all (or, sometimes, any) answers. And, remember, I NEVER think about the things I am about to talk about WHILE I am writing. Some is done in the pre-writing stage and most, during revision. Meaning, just write, and think about all of this again LATER. 
            Okay, here goes (again):
           There are really only three types of sentences, so hence only three ways you can start your story. They are:
             *Description : It was a cold and stormy night
             *Dialogue : “I like you,” the boy said.  This includes sounds:  Bang! Pop! Watch out! And the ever-popular: Crash!
             *Narration: The boy and girl walked down the street.

            Now, I can begin a new book without knowing the ending (I NEVER know the ending), without having any kind of outline, without even knowing all my characters, or their exact characteristics and my first sentence will always be either, dialogue, description, or narration.
            BUT I cannot start a story without knowing these three things:
             These three things should all be included in your first sentence.
(though not necessarily visibly)
             Let’s break them down.
             P.O.V Point of View.  Again, only a few choices here: First, second, or third (close or omniscient.)  Most people know these, but many forget to consider from what point in time the narrator is telling their story.  Present tense is pretty self explanatory, but past can be trickier. Is this narrator telling this story from a distance? Two days. Two years? Or just a few seconds? Past tense has the magical suspension of disbelief, that although everything taking place has already happened, the narrator doesn’t know what is coming. And most importantly. . . Why are they telling this story? Why are they telling it NOW, at this point in time?  Your first sentence will hold this information, either directly or subliminally.

Tone: I like to think of this as, What kind of TV show did I just put on?  Law and Order? Glee? The Brady Bunch? Or Dark Shadows?  I’m dating myself, but you get the idea. You need to have a very firm idea about what KIND of story you want to write.  For me, when I wrote my first book, I knew I wanted it to be poignant but humorous. Humorous but poignant. (I was completely inspired by Ruth White’s Belle Prater’s Boy.)
            You don’t want to change your mind about tone mid-way through writing. And you don’t want to be wishy-washy about it either.  Tone will inform every scene, every word choice, every character decision, the beginning, middle, and end. It is the music and lighting of your story. It is the way your reader will know what kind of TV show they’ve just just put on.
 Setting:  Setting. Setting. Setting. For some reason, new writers often forget how important this is. I mean, they think they’ve know the setting, but often, not well enough. KNOW your setting, know everything about it. Not just whether your book is set in the country or city, but the economics of that town. Know, not only that your character is in middle school, but how large the school is. What is the demographics.  The landscape. Know, the country, the exact state (you can make up towns, but not the state!) the town, and the street. The more specific the better, even if none of it ever shows up in your text. It will be relevant to your characters and every aspect of your story. So don’t gloss over setting.
            (p.s. If you write fantasy, knowing your setting is, of course, even more important because there will be no common context for your readers. You will need to have every detail ironed out and consistent.)

Once you have these three things settled, it’s safe to start driving.

            Writing your first draft is like driving in the dark. A revision is driving with the lights on. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  I want to share a few hints/rules that should help you with your first line (and the rest of your story.)

            One: Begin your story at a point at which something has happened or is about to happen. 

            Kurt Vonnegut says, enter a scene as late as possible and get out as early as you can. In other words, don't start at the beginning.  You don't have front-load all information. There are many other ways to reveal backstory, using dialogue and flashbacks.  Or maybe you don’t even need it.

            Two: Details not adjectives will make your writing better. Be as specific as possible. And it’s
salient details not just every details. What you chose to show is like a camera close-up. The viewer/reader will see it as important.
Don’t show EVERYTHING.
Three: When you write that first sentence ask yourself this: Can I draw a picture of it?   The first sentences that stay in your mind, the ones that make the biggest impact, and draw the reader in the best, are visual. You can see them. Remember them. Draw a picture of them.

                       *Take a risk. Stand naked and write boldly.*
           Four: And lastly, take a risk. Stand naked and write boldly. Write from your heart (always my advice!)  If you have a passion about something, go for it. Don’t hold back.

That first sentence can be long or short, complicated or simple.

Louis Sachar-Holes: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”

 Cynthia Rylant- Missing May: “When May died, Ob came back to the trailer, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night.”

It may or may not reveal the point of view.

Anne Brashares- The sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Once upon a time there was a pair of pants.
Ruth White- Belle Prater’s Boy:  Around 5:00 a.m. on a warm Sunday morning in October 1953, my Aunt Belle left her bed and vanished from the face of the earth.

         It might hit you over the head with tone, or be more subtle.

William Steig- Solomon and the Rusty Nail: “Solomon was an ordinary rabbit, except for one thing: anytime he wanted to, he could turn into a rusty nail.”

E. B. White- Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

            But look how much you know from each of these examples!  Look carefully. They are packed with information. They are unforgettable first sentences. But don’t take this too literally, if your first sentence doesn’t turn out to be a knock out, don’t make yourself crazy. Just make sure your first paragraph, first scene, first chapter is.
            First lines is a metaphor for that promise you are making your reader that the rest of your story needs to keep.

            Having said that, I'm not sure of this first line yet from one of my works in progress. What are your thoughts on it, and the shared excerpt (as per the Friday Feedback RULES): What works? What doesn't? Does the piece compel you to keep reading? 

Chapter One

“Well, what did you expect?” Cat was asking. “That he’d stop dead in his tracks and say, ‘Hey aren’t you the girl I locked eyes with for a total of three--no, probably more like two seconds--a year and a half ago? Oh my god, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.’”

Grace shrugged. She was used to this, people not understanding her, even, sometimes, Cat, her best friend.  For quite a while now, Grace suspected that other people didn’t have the same commentary constantly running through their head, mostly self-critical, often times, half a click away from panic. 

You can be pretty intense sometimes, Grace, Cat would tell her. Cat would try to explain, not everybody thinks about everything the way you do. They don’t all feel the same way about things.  They don’t all look for the drama like you do.

Or get hurt as easily. 

Or absorb blame so readily. 

And it was pretty crazy, Grace had to admit. To be thinking about a boy she didn’t know and had made up fantastical stories about for all these months; about how she would bump into him. Ways they could meet. About when Luke would kiss her the first time, and how amazing that would be.

        She had a mad crush on someone who resided completely in her head. Luke hadn’t rejected her in the hall; she had set herself up. It was like being in love with a movie star, with someone you can never have. Someone who doesn’t want you. Grace seemed to have a penchant for that kind of love; Wanted but not wanted, loved but not loved enough. It was a dance she had learned a long time ago, steps she had taught herself, because she had to.  

Now it’s your turn. One line or the first few paragraphs.
Stand naked. 
Take a risk.
Let your freak flag fly.
Let the games begin.

- Nora (and Gae)

(p.s. My guest authors work hard ALL day and sometimes ALL weekend. So please check out NINE, TEN and all of Nora's amazing books! 


  1. Dear Nora,
    Thank you for sharing your expertise!
    Your excerpt immediately threw me back to my middle and high school crush days. I think you nailed teenage angst by moving back and forth between dialogue and internal thoughts. That constant worry and tendancy to compare oneself to everyone else..."am I normal?" I MUST keep reading. I want to know why Grace developed these dance steps.
    Ok, I'm going to stand naked and take a risk...Here's my first couple of lines from a children's picture book
    "For as long as Sherman could remember, being a sheep meant doing "sheepy" things. Grazing together. Wearing White. Hiding from wolves."
    I'm sweating now - it could be nerves or maybe it's just a hot flash.

    1. oh Wendy..I totally get the sweating (the dry mouth, the heart racing) and I only think that happens because you care. YOU care! As for my thoughts on your lines. I love it. My mind is already supplanting Sherman the sheep with Sherman, the child and worried about who the wolves are. Not sure what "wearing white" means since there are many colors of sheep. (I grew up in New Paltz! I even belonged to 4-H) Just make sure it is what you intend. I also love, "for a long as Sherman could remember.." which of course alerts the reader that this is all about to change!

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    3. Thank you for your insight, feedback and support!!! I will definitely change 'wearing white'. I already have an edit in mind that will work much better.

    4. I love this line about Sherman - it's a great picture book opening. I'd definitely turn the page!

    5. If falling in insta-love with Sherman means you have a great first line, then so be it. #TeamSherman <3

    6. Love all the support for Wendy and Sherman!!!

    7. That means so much coming from you, Gae. Me too, Dana!

    8. I love it and want to know what comes next!!

  2. Good Morning! It’s Friday Feedback Day---WOOT! (Many kisses to Gae)

    I have so much to write here that I am forcing myself to bullet point—otherwise I’d lose you (and might anyway)

    1st What works for me in the excerpt above is the anxiety. So many kids are anxious! And, I think those kids should become authors… least for me….the anxiety is my friend when trying to write. Ha! There are so many imagined troubles to turn into story. What I wonder about (can never say “doesn’t work” to an excerpt) is the very adult wisdom of Cat. I simply do not understand from what’s there….how she can be SO wise. Maybe there is a perfectly good reason. Maybe she’s addicted to Dr. Phil?

    2nd. I will ABSOULETLY put nine, ten in my middle school library….can’t WAIT to get my hands on it.

    3rd I love teaching with FIRST LINES! One of the most fun lessons I’ve had was asking kids to match the first line of a book to its cover art. Seriously fun prediction activity.

    4th I respond to my world in verse…reading it….writing it….revising it….thinking about it. So, my feedback entries are most often in verse. Today’s is a “Riff on Ryan” which I explain more in my #PoetryFriday contribution on my blog (click on my name and you’ll go there). Would love feedback….specifically feedback that brings attention to how the poem (short story) might be disrespectful or “off” in some way. Apologies for formatting. The italics don't show. They do on my blog.



    They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. -Justice Sonya Sotomayor*

    Shooting, the noun,
    rips choice away from taking it personally,
    appallingly. When humanity
    aims, squeezes, fires at
    not just at any coal mine canary
    suffocated in the dark
    but dads selling CDs
    boyfriends driving home with beating--
    then stopped hearts. Then
    officers protecting a non-violent march.
    This word, this utterance reminds us that
    some nouns are too dangerous, broken, weak--
    that we must say, you must stop this.

    1. should have added that "riffing on Ryan" is using her poem as a mentor text....another TW connection for me.

    2. Hi Linda!
      Great idea on pairing first lines & book covers. I love it.

      Strong poem. The line that stand out for me are "rips choice away" and there is lots of power in your line breaks. I also like how you use the word noun...a non-offensive tie in the beginning and ending contrasting against the reality of what is happening.

      I agree with Nora about the switch on beating and hearts. My mind first went to a boyfriend you wouldn't really want.

      A line that I wonder about is "from taking it personally" I keep going to it, but can't quite get it. Might be my weakness though and not yours!

      Keep writing!

    3. oh yes..may I "borrow' that game of pairing up lines with book covers. Or maybe book titles. That is genius.

  3. Mitchell Linda..(or is the Linda Mitchell?) I am blown away and speechless..and grateful that you've found a way to use your art to touch on what is happening today (and for so long now). The quote is amazing...the poetry is amazing. It is complicated,and artful, but not so obscure as to be confusing. You nail so much in a short piece. Here is one suggestion (don't kill me)..The line "boyfriends driving home with beating--" As is, and ending on that word has a connotation I don't think you intended: beating. Whereas every other line, when you break it apart (which is what poetry is all about, right?) stands along and connects to the line following it. What if you just flipped the subject and action? Boyfriends driving home with hearts--/beating, then stopped. Again, thank you for sharing this. And yes, most of my writer friends understand anxiety/depression..all of the above!

    1. Linda,

      beautiful. Thank you for this today. And I agree with Nora on that one switch. Keep going. <3

    2. totally agree about the line break....I keep going back to taking it personally too....but it's following the mentor text of the original poem by Ryan. I may keep tinkering with it. Or not. It's just a poem for the blog. I'm starting to share more and let them go instead of stock piling for no one to read, ever. I do have a wip where I am building of verses. No rest for poets these days.

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  5. I love your lesson. I've pinned so I can find it later. It's perfect to use for revision, notebook work and first line creation. Pair it with Linda's idea of asking students to pair first line with book covers could be very fun!

    Your first line absolutely drew me in. I have theories about people falling in love with the imagined conversations in their heads versus the real person they are engaging with and I understand that over-thinking, busy brain. I wonder if that is the brain of a writer. We have to get it out because so much buzzes around in there. It is amazing that she recognizes her weakness already, but my daughter, with her 1st "boyfriend" in Grade six, told me her relationship was "just an awkward middle-school thing" and I was floored by her insight. I wish I knew my awkward middle school things were just that when I was only 11. Kids these days! I would certainly read on to find out what else Grace figures out.

    So here's my introduction to my middle grade WIP:

    Gates are important to farms. They keep animals in and dangers out, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the threats come from within. So, how do you deal with that?
    Like most days, I climbed on the long, metal gate before Dad unlocked it, beginning the slow swing into the barnyard. That was the easy part; the difficult part? Jumping off against the swing. “One, two, three!” Dad said, and I vaulted myself into the air, pushing the gate to its rattling finish. “Nice one,” he laughed, as my barn boots squelched into the edge of a large, fresh cow patty.
    I looked down, rubbing the orange tip of my boot on the ground to scrape off the disgustingness. I had only managed to land the jump two out of five times this week. It wasn’t a good sign.
    “Hannah, that’s not a big deal. We can hose it off before we go back to the house.”
    I knew that dad’s laughter didn’t mean anything. He wasn’t laughing at me, but it reminded me of other laughter. The end of grade six had been a blow-out. There had been piano exams, dance recitals, and the school gymnastics competition. I had frozen in every one of them, forgotten whole routines. I knew them. I had practised. But, in front of an audience? Gone. It was like an evil magician lived in my brain practising his disappearing act over and over again. Carrie Dent never forgot what she was supposed to do. She got all the solos in our recitals, and that gymnastics medal could have been mine if I wasn’t always so nervous. When I was practising in the school gym, not thinking about who was watching, I had looked up from the final pose to the whole gym watching, smiling and clapping. It felt so good, and I could do it, just not when it counted.

    Thanks to all for any feedback.

    1. Stefanie, I really like the opening paragraph with the gates. I'm wondering if you need the question "How do you deal with that?" because I think it's already in the reader's mind.

      This piece nicely sets up the relationship between Hannah and her dad, and also gives us a lot about Hannah's personality, her slight squeamishness about the cow patty, etc.

      As I read on, I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the information and backstory in last section. I was unclear on how many competitions she participated in (dance, piano and gymnastics?). Maybe find a way to dole this information out a little more slowly or gradually, unless it's important to what happens next. Is there a way to show us how she freezes during presentations, rather than telling us? Something to think about.

    2. Thank you, Andrea.
      I was looking at it the other day & wondering if I was tossing in too much too fast. Good to have confirmation.

    3. Stefanie,

      I love this piece so much. SO much wonderful emotion and the juxtaposition of the barn/farm home to what happens at school.

      I have a simple wonder about your first line and it's impact... I think the real lovely, poignant VOICE of your piece starts a few lines down - the place where we're let RIGHT IN to your MC's life, and I'm wondering how the impact of the second line might multiply it if you added it after we start to see your MC's conflict and problem. All merely musing on my part, but it could look something like this:

      I climbed on the long, metal gate before Dad unlocked it, beginning the slow swing into the barnyard. That was the easy part; the difficult part? Jumping off against the swing. “One, two, three!” Dad said, and I vaulted myself into the air, pushing the gate to its rattling finish. “Nice one,” he laughed, as my barn boots squelched into the edge of a large, fresh cow patty.
      I looked down, rubbing the orange tip of my boot on the ground to scrape off the disgustingness. I had only managed to land the jump two out of five times this week. It wasn’t a good sign.
      “Hannah, that’s not a big deal. We can hose it off before we go back to the house.”
      I knew that dad’s laughter didn’t mean anything. He wasn’t laughing at me, but it reminded me of other laughter. The end of grade six had been a blow-out. There had been piano exams, dance recitals, and the school gymnastics competition. I had frozen in every one of them, forgotten whole routines. I knew them. I had practised. But, in front of an audience? Gone. It was like an evil magician lived in my brain practising his disappearing act over and over again. Carrie Dent never forgot what she was supposed to do. She got all the solos in our recitals, and that gymnastics medal could have been mine if I wasn’t always so nervous. When I was practising in the school gym, not thinking about who was watching, I had looked up from the final pose to the whole gym watching, smiling and clapping. It felt so good, and I could do it, just not when it counted.

      I looked back at the gate and thought how important they can be, especially on farms. They keep animals in, and dangers out. But it doesn’t always work that way. How do you deal with the threats that come from within.

      Something like that... I mean, I'm merely playing, but if you put the observation that opens the story after we see her conflict begin, it carries a lot of weight, and meanwhile you bring us right into her rich life with action... Maybe Nora will chime in and disagree! :D

    4. Wow! Thank you for the time and thought you put into this. I know you're laughing because you and Nora saw the same thing, but to see it twice and for you to show me how it could be done, like the Mastercard commercial, priceless.

      I wrote this back to Nora, but it relates to comments from all three of you. I have idea for story, I have ideas for the story, backstory, metaphors and repeating images. I definitely have to work on weaving them all together.

      I've got 13 000 words in on this and I'm having so much fun applying what I'm learning from my reading and Teacher Write!

      I really have to finish first draft though. Goal for this summer!

  6. Nora, I really like how you've perfectly captured the running dialogue that went through my head when I was a painfully shy teen crushing on a guy. One thing I wondered is how much Grace would tell Cat, even as her best friend, about her secret wishes and hopes. Since you mentioned setting, now I'm thinking about the piece you shared and wondering where it's taking place, though I think this exchange between two friends could happen anywhere--at school, in one of their rooms, while hanging out at the mall. Anyway, I'd definitely read on to find out more about Grace and Cat.

    I will definitely be looking for Nine, Ten. Here's the opening of a project I'm working on:

    Ignoring the squeeze of panic in her chest, Jade ran her foot along the climbing wall to search for a new foothold. And smiled. Because a skilled actor could make everyone believe she was having fun, even if she wasn’t.

    “Hurry up, girl!” Eden shouted from the ground. “I’m not gonna lose this scavenger hunt because you want to look like a movie star.”

    So much for having a supportive partner.

    The red ribbon danced at the top of the climbing wall, just out of reach. She’d have to go higher. Jade scraped her foot across the fake rock again. There had to be another foothold. Below her, doll-sized kids climbed out of miniature paddle boats. Would she land on them if she fell? She shouldn’t have looked down. If she ever starred in an action-adventure, she’d definitely need a stunt double.

    1. Andrea- first of all..thank you! you're right. Setting! my own advice. I guess I need to reveal that this opening wasn't always my opening and that I fliped flopped it during one revision and something always nagged me. I think you hit the nail on the head. Now on to your wonderful piece. Such tone! I get it immediately. I know exactly what TV show I've tuned in to. You did a wonderful job of creating that. And yes, setting. Check! I've never done that kind of indoor rocking climbing myself..but it was so easy to SEE. I recognized it right away and I love the idea of beginning (OMG talk about hanging from a cliff..did you like my dad's illlustration?) on a literal cliff hanger. You also do a nice subtle job of introducing other aspects of her character. Does this girl have a dream of being an actor? And even her friends know it? Want to read on!

    2. Thank you! I've been working on this book for so long, sometimes it's hard to judge which bits are working. I never thought about it being a "cliff hanger" but that's so funny - I love it! (There is an actual "cliff hanger" scene near the end of the book). And that illustration is so great!!

    3. does the actor/movie star reference have a larger meaning? because you mention it three times..I think that's why I thought that. I'm really curious. Which is great, right?

    4. Yes! Acting is her dream and she's going to be going on a wilderness trip as kind of an audition for a tv show role.

    5. Andrea,

      All that Nora says about your excerpt. Love the humor! Keep going.

    6. Andrea..what a cool premise. I love that..fresh and different. And very contemporary.

  7. Hi Andrea,

    I love how your character runs commentary on her actions from a media perspective and how her friend calls her out on it. It made me laugh. You've definitely set the tone here and I wonder how she got to this place. Is she striving for fame anyway she can find it?

    When I do certain things, dumbish things, I always imagine the newspaper headlines that could accompany my death. I think your character might do that too.

    I'd definitely keep reading. It has a very fun feel to it!

    1. What a cool concept for a book Andrea! I want to know your MC! I get the hint that she wants to be an actor but that she also maybe hides who she is or what she wants from others. Keep on going with it!

    2. Thanks for the encouragement, Dana!

  8. Stephanie -ah ha! I totally get it. I am just like Hannah. I have terrible stage fright (or used to..and in fact, I ruined an entire high school play single handedly) so I relate. I know I'm not doing this in the right order, that Gae has laid out, BUT Stephanie, consider getting rid of the first four sentences and beginning this delightful story with "I climbed on the long, metal gate..." I love the theme out fences, that both keep things in and keep things out as a metaphor for her own inner demons. It is a great analogy. Could you weave that in more organically..using Hannah's voice after you've established it (as you do so beautifully in the second paragraph). Use the actual physical fence do the work for you. But, this is nit-picking..(usually done after the entire first draft is written)..keep writing. You have the're off and running.

    1. fixing my own typos..(I type way too fast..sorry) I love the theme ABOUT fences, that both "keep things in and keep things out" is a metaphor for her own inner demons.

    2. I appreciate nitpicking! I think I'll have to develop more skill in the art of weaving. It sounds like I need to learn how to weave metaphor and back story into my writing, instead of slamming the reader over the head with it.

      Just finished Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. It think they approach it beautifully. I also see it in your opening, Nora, and I love your use of single italicized lines. There is so much to learn & see in books as you learn it. Thank you.

    3. OMG, Nora, go up and look at my reply to Stefanie... yours was after so I didn't see it first. I LOVE when that happens! I had said maybe you'd chime in and DISAGREE with me, but alas you had chimed in first saying the same thing! :D

      And, yes, so often the advice we offer here would be caught by the writer on revision... we give it anyway to be illustrative. :D

    4. ha! crazy..I agree with you...I mean, me. I mean you. me, you. I am learning so much from this...selfishly for myself. I hope everyone feels the same way.

    5. Aaaand, now you know the secret of why I keep doing it and invest so much time. Because i am CONSTANTLY learning. And reinforcing. And rethinking. <3

  9. Thank you Gae and Nora, this is a tremendously generous and valuable service you are providing.
    1. What works: The dialogue, the friendship, and the issues featured in this excerpt all sound authentic to me. I REALLY like the two lines in italics where Grace continues to list her "differences," on top of the ones she's heard about from Cat.
    2. What Doesn't Work: I'm just confused by the mention of Luke and if he has anything to do with the boy from the past. Maybe that incident with Luke is detailed later.
    3. Hooked?: Yes. I immediately identify with Grace and want more of her unique perspective (disclaimer: like Grace, I'm told [and know] that I overthink and feel things).

    Here are the first few chapters of a completely raw WIP:

    It had gotten cold quickly. Two days ago, Mike was complaining about the heat as he sweated his way through his “Government Systems of the World” presentation. Now, it was cold and wet. “How cold is it actually?” he wondered. He wasn’t good at paying attention to things like this and therefore he was even worse at estimating them. “Is it close to frosting outside right now?” he wondered. “Does that happen in September, I can’t remember?”

    The one thing he knew for sure, was that it was definitely too cold to be wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Especially when those clothes had gotten wet when it rained. He started to shiver. He walked below the window of his parent’s bedroom and thought about calling out, or throwing something at it to wake them up. But how would he explain that he was out here in the middle of the night wearing shorts and a T-shirt, when they had seen him go to bed in pajamas? No, it wasn’t worth the warm comfort of his bed to deal with the wrath of his parents finding out that he had snuck out.

    He looked around the yard, where would be the warmest place that he could go? He remembered the big rectangle thing that his parents used to store the cushions of the patio furniture. It was just cheap plastic, but it did have a cover in case it started raining again. Plus, maybe he could use the cushions as a blanket? They would at least be more comfortable than standing up until the sunrise, whenever that would be.

    1. Rob, I really like the tone in this beginning. I get a strong sense of your main character as a worrier, and someone who perhaps doesn't quite think things through before he acts. I'm very curious about why he snuck out.

      I wonder if there isn't a bit too much detail about the weather. What happens if you start this with the second paragraph? That would bring us right into his predicament.

    2. Rob, What works: I am immediately curious about why Mike was out in the middle of the night and want to know more. That being said, I agree with Andrea - there is too much weather discussion for me and I got distracted by that. How about jumping right into the action with "Mike walked below the window of his parents' bedroom..."? Starting there would grab the reader's attention. You've naturally woven in the weather/cold/wet from that point on. I would definitely keep reading - I want to know how Mike gets out of this predicament!

  10. Rob - thank you. That is exactly what I was unconsciously hoping for, I think. For readers to connect with Grace's overly sensitive brain. and wow, I am learning a lot from everyone's comments. And realizing how raw my WIP really is!
    I hesitate to make any specific comments when it is a first draft..we writers can so easily get thrown off our horse. But I love this opening. A boy standing outside his own house, freezing cold, after having snuck out (where was he? what was he doing?) I am not sensing an ominous or scary tone. His voice is not edgy, or dark. It almost seems like an accident or mistake that he is outside. Or he was helping a friend. Certainly, I want to know..And that is a great thing. I also really like him already. We know a lot about him already. He's in high school (judging from the class he's taking) he lives with his parents (and that seems a good/normal relationship) We know he lives in the suburbs of some kind, not a city (the patio furniture)
    I might suggest streamlining that first paragraph. You use the word "cold' several times. He ponders the weather for so long, I wondered if he was on the spectrum in some way. Not sure. Why can't he get into his own house or think he has to stand until sunrise? "Big rectangle thing" also gave me that impression.
    Or is he pondering the weather as an avoidance to his real issue? Maybe make that a bit clearer either way.
    great opener..setting is established, as is POV of course ..wondering a bit about the tone.

    1. Rob -- you've gotten some great feedback and great advice. Of course, as writers, so much would be fixed on revision, and you can certainly save the feedback for that phase, but you don't need more from me! I want to know more about Mike and what has him out looking for a place of refuge in the middle of a cold night. He thinks about throwing something at their window... did he get locked out? Why can't he wake them? By a series of small crumbs you create a trail that hooks. Good work. Keep going!

  11. Good Morning Nora. I am compelled to keep reading because although Grace feels as if she is the only one to feel so sensitive, that feeling of being alone in your mind is actually what I remember being common as a young person- that I felt so active in my mind and so did everyone else, but we couldn't quite reach each other. Which made friendships so important, for the moments when we could.
    Here is my bit...not a YA anything, a short story, though.

    Driving up the gravel pathway, Gina looked at the sign for Camp Sandy Springs, every year looking more worn and faded. She used to sand and paint it every year to mark the return, the arrival of the outside world. Now, the only people she saw in the summers were the odd bible camp from the local church and the last women’s group that kept coming, their old and wrinkly naked bodies celebrating their feminine selves. Gina sighed, taking her foot off the gas so that she slowed to a stop before the gate that led to the camp. Forty years. Forty summers, she corrected herself, for she had not spent the winters there until she and Marta braved the snow a few years before. Years of campfire smoke and that peculiar moist and mildew that never left after washing.
    Gina’s tires spun as she moved again, pulling up to the lodge and stepping out. It was then as she surveyed the field and path to the cabins, that she noticed the car parked. It was nearly hidden behind Foxglove Cabin. A baby cried. It was a ghostly sound to an old woman alone in the world who arrived expecting quiet.

    1. Hi, Emily! Nora went for a walk with her dog but will be back soon. Going to let her chime in with constructive feedback where relevant, but I just want to say that I love the picture you create of the Camp now and then and those last lines. . . chills. . . sooo good and poignant, too.

    2. wow okay..Emily P..I have so much to say. first of all, I love love love your details. The sense you use..smell in particular. I know exactly that lingering fire smell. There is so much here..but I think you are rushing. I want to know more and this scene itself is slow, drawn out as she drives slowly and reminisces, so why not take your time. I want to understand the setting now. Bible camp what? people? children?( I think you left out the subject) The woman's group..? Love that.but I want to understand exactly what you are referring to and what images she remembers seeing. This is the context for your whole story. Don't throw it away. Nice to drop in Marta, this way. not sure the relationship but that's okay. I'm intrigued. But lastly, this mention of "the car" isn't working for me..since Gina is IN a she is seeing "another car" or a strange car? or a familiar car? When she noticed "the car" I am a little confused and it seems way way too important not to be clearer. And I'd maybe rethink that last line. After all your beautiful writing, that one didn't fit for me. It felt like the author's feet were showing rather than the narrator telling a story. Does that make sense? Clearly, I am your target audience. I loved this!

    3. whoops...look Gae and I disagree on that last line. A good reminder, Emily P. only take away what resonates with YOU. Always and only!!!

    4. Funny how that happens. We were exactly in agreement on Stefanie's piece and veered on our feelings on this one. THAT is why writing and our connection to writing is subjective. <3

    5. Thank you both for your feedback. I don't know if you are checking back in with this thread, but thank you! I had to shake my head and laugh at the feedback about rushing...I am totally rushing, and if I thought I could hide it I was sorely mistaken. I am rushing because I have a baby who could wake at any moment, because I know my weak area is revision and I want to get to an ending so I can practice, because I am trying to submit (and collect rejections) as much as possible this year and I don't feel like I have done enough yet. So basically, in my writing life I have an awesome sense of urgency that is getting the better of me, and it is showing up in my writing. A lesson that goes beyond these few paragraphs I shared. Thank you!

  12. OMG - I am Grace, Grace is so teenage me. That running dialogue in her head and thinking she is so different from anybody else. And the fantasizing - if I weren't a writer I would think I'm crazy! I was sucked in and definitely want to read more. I did wonder, given her shyness and self-criticism, if she would admit to Cat her fantasy about Luke. It might make more sense if Cat doesn't know the extent of the fantasies, only that she has a crush on the guy. Just a thought.

    Thank you for this exercise! Here's the first line of my WIP:

    It all happened the same day I farted in front of Jimmy Falcon, without a doubt the cutest guy in seventh grade, and proves yet again that if anything can go wrong in my life, it will.

    I just won a copy of Nine Ten and can't wait to read it!

    1. Hi Michele! I totally related to Grace too. Your first line made me laugh! Although I'm working to imagine what happened when she sons are always making lots of bodily noises that they think are oh so funny so I'm wondering the type of toot she let loose. Gosh, that's such a weird thing to say! But I mean it...was it loud or quiet and was it only the two of them so it had to be her? And what did she do? Did she try to play it off? But then there is also the suggestion that there is even more that happened on this day. I'm definitely curious to read more! Keep writing!

    2. Michele, I love this opening line. A truly embarrassing moment for a 7th grade girl (I'm assuming girl). In this opening line I already know that this character has some flaws and I want to read to find out what "all happened".

    3. Ahhhhh...can you hear me laughing from here. I am laughing ..and the comments below are making me laugh even more! Which proves once again, how humor is so important. It is rare, too. And when it's done well can be more poignant than straight drama. (and yes, I just mailed out your book! so glad to see you here on Friday Feedback. What a small world!) Thank you for your thoughts on Grace. I am a writer and people still think I'm crazy. Which is another reason that forums like this one are so so so important. We need a community of like minded sensitive people!
      Of course, you haven't given me much to write about in your first line. Other than (as I've already written) I love the humor. I LOVE the voice. She is honest and open ..and we love that. She has already indicated to us that she feels insecure, or rather neurotic about things going wrong in her life. I think I just love his name, too. And of course, the alliteration (fart and falcon) is ..what else? Fantastic. Good silly humor is also intelligent so make sure to balance that. Do you know "what all happened" the same day? this incident is only minor, right? I wonder what would happen if you didn't without that information but dumped it right out front. Just a thought...

    4. Michele, much laughing here too... my WORST nightmare in middle school would have been that. Farting in front of a cute boy. Here's a wonder for you. Nothing more than food for thought. If the "It" that all happened that same day is terrible stuff, would it make it more compelling and = more of a hook if you shared. So it would read something like:

      The truly terrible things all happened the very same day I farted in front of Jimmy Falcon, without a doubt the cutest guy in seventh grade, and proves yet again that if anything can go wrong in my life, it will.

      I dunno. It was a thought. Maybe others will chime in.

      LOVE it! Keep going!

    5. Thank you, thank you, thank you Jennifer, Wendy, Nora and Gae. Your encouragement and advice will definitely keep me going!

  13. Hi Nora! Hi Gae! I'm so excited to get to see you both at Nerdcamp!!! Only a few more days. I've only recently just switched the beginning of my novel but I think it starts at a better space and like you said, it captures the tone I'm going for. It's so fascinating to me how this book has shifted with revision but I feel in love with it even more every time I do revise so I keep going!

    Nora - thanks for sharing your story start! I totally relate to Grace like so many others have said. I love how we see the dynamics between the two friends and already I'm curious what Grace is going to do about her friend and this boy and herself. :)

    Here's my new(est) beginning to my WIP:

    I drag my paintbrush across the canvas in a wavy line, up and down like I’m floating in the water of Lake Louisa. When I reach the edge, I add more aqua paint to my brush, and go backwards, down and up, the current gently pulling me along. Growing up in a lake town means I’ve spent more time in the water, on the water, or near the water than anywhere else. Even though I’m in my room with canvases of my mixed media art covering the floor, the water is near. It buoys me up, laps at my skin, calms every cell in my soul just to think of it.

    Just this morning, I hung out at the beach with Hayden, relishing in the fact that school is out and we are free. He found a football in his car and we played catch like we were seven again, laughing and splashing around forgetting the world beyond the sandy beach.

    1. THIS. Jen. THIS. "It buoys me up, laps at my skin, calms every cell in my soul just to think of it."

      a beautiful line.

    2. The opening line gives me a immediate sense of setting. The additional details draw me further into the character's ties to 'place'.
      I concur with Dana about that AMAZING line - that alone makes me want to read more of your writing.
      I want to know what's going to happen with Hayden. I anticipate that it's something important because he was introduced in the 2nd paragraph. I would keep reading.

    3. Jennifer - what ever you were struggling with in determining your opening I think you've solved it. As the others have mentioned this first paragraph is lovely and I think, perfect as is. It is very hard to describe something like..painting. The actual act of painting...but you've done. I swear I saw her paintbrush reach the end of the canvas but by using the word "edge" (another HUGE part of writing is word choice, of course) I also saw the water's edge, an ocean touch the sand, a river and a river bank. I saw blue and green..even though you never mention color. Another great word choice is "Lake Lousia". To this narrator, it is not any body of water. It is THIS body of she knows so well.
      (Is it Florida?) I also love the sentence everyone is referencing. Lovely writing.
      Now, I am not as enamored with the second paragraph. I always caution people about using phrases..catch phrases, like "Just this morning"
      In this case, it is an abrupt change in voice and tone. But more than that (and I can't tell, because I don't know where you are going after this paragraph) is the rest of this scene going to be a full flashback to the beach? Or just a brief thought as she is painting? If it is a full flash back then set this part up as beautifully as you have her in her room. Find the right transitional phrase to take us to the beach, which will not only take us there but show us WHY she returns to this memory. Is it the painting? A color? A sensation? Water itself? that will trigger the memory and then let us experience it..instead of "Just this morning". I hope this rambling of mine is making sense. please, let me know.

    4. Hi again! Thanks for your feedback! I'm glad the first paragraph resonates with you. The second paragraph isn't a long flashback, it's just a quick one to hopefully introduce Hayden and that she's known him since they were kids and that it's summer. But I've rewritten that second paragraph a few times so I'm not in love with it either!

      Here's what comes next:

      Now he’s stretched out on my bed, propped up on my fluffy pillows, strumming his guitar absentmindedly while I paint. Sometimes I recognize the tune and other times it’s nothing I can make out.

      Like my art.

      Sometimes the colors swirl and blend until eventually a bird or a flower or a girl emerges.

      Sometimes the bits and pieces of paper and fabric layered on top of each other come together into a star or a rainbow or a mountain.

      Sometimes the brushstrokes speak for themselves, heavy and thick or soft and mellow, emitting emotions and images words can’t express.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. oh're right. This just goes to show how difficult (and horribly unfair) it is to read only a same section. I love this and now I understand what you were doing. The scene remains in her room..and now we see that the boy is in her room with her. I have to tell you ..this is lyrical and lovely..and dare I say, sexy.

    7. Hi, Jen,

      I love it! I love the opening, and I love the "more". When reading the excerpts, I have so many questions that I know would be answered with more text. I had so many questions after paragraph two (Just this morning...) but they are answered in the following paragraphs. I really enjoy the repeating "Sometimes" because it provides a nice flow to the details. Well done!

    8. Love the lilting voice of this. What they all said. But, hey, you knew I'd love your writing already. :D See you soon!

    9. Thank you everyone for your thoughts and feedback! xoxo

      Nora - Please don't feel bad! I'm glad that with a little more context it does work. I truly have been playing around with how to shift and intro Hayden and their relationship without sounding forced.

  14. Nora, What I really admire about your beginning is how Grace struggles with how she has been vulnerable with Cat and Cat has sort of shamed her (even if it is unintentional) for being the sensitive and thoughtful soul that she is. I also appreciate your comments to these writers who are taking risks to share. I will be honest and say that I have not read your work but my friend, Michelle Hasteltine, has been talking about Nine, Ten and I have it on my list to pick up. Do you have a middle grade book of yours that I should also add to my list? :)

    Okay, so with Gae's help a couple Fridays ago, I switched a fourth paragraph line and made it my first. I would love any feedback on how it works. Thank you so much for your time!

    It's Entirely Possibly MG

    Some say you should face your fears, love who you are, but when it comes to the humiliation of THAT, well, there was no way I could stay.

    I had no choice. The line stretched from the scale and out the door. The kids in my class couldn’t see the number but they sure could hear the nurse yelling them for the nice old lady-volunteer, who must have been hard of hearing.

    Running was my only option. Who wouldn’t? I mean, if you had figured out just that very morning, that you were the heaviest kid in your whole fifth grade class and were taken to be weighed in public so everyone could know YOUR NUMBER, then you would have done exactly what I did.

    1. Hello Dana! Michelle Hasteltine has been I bet you are too! thank you. I do hope you like Nine, Ten.
      Now, interestedly..I don't know what Gae said or read or what your first draft looked like..but I suggest (pretty strongly) that you just cut that first sentence all together. I think writers often think they have to explain what they are about to "show us". So why "tell us' what you so beautifully SHOW us.
      I had no choice.
      Great first line. I think. And you quickly give us setting. Tone. and POV ..all perfectly. Not only that, but I CARE about this girl right away. (or boy, I guess) I like this narrator. "nice old lady volunteer" lets me know this character notices things. Cares about people. Is not angry at those around her, but worried. I love that it begins with action. Running.
      You are choosing to have your narrator speak directly to the reader (sort of) by asking us if we wouldn't do the same thing. And we would! So we relate right away. By placing the scale front and center..we see the scene and we feel the anxiety. And well, it works. I don't see what the line "Some say you should face your fears..." adds to your story. Again, I think it is the author's feet showing and not necessarily the narrator. Remember, POV is not only who is talking .but from what point in time. The first line has a different vantage point than the following paragraph. It seems more of looking back from a future POV. (which may be what you want..but just make sure it is intentional) I'm curious how others read it..

    2. Ah, thank you Nora! You are giving me so many things to think about! The second line was originally my first. So much good advice. I am so appreciative and need to mull this over! I am also curious how others read it!

    3. Dana- just be careful..I imagine this can be over whelming..Don't jump through ANY hoops but your own. please please please.

    4. Hi Dana. I remember reading this piece last week, but I didn't go back to re-read the previous version today. My gut sense is that this one works better - You're giving me the information I need without over explaining it. I do, though, agree with Nora, that the first paragraph isn't needed. I love how punchy "I had no choice" would be as a first line.

      As someone last week said...did she really just figure out she's the heaviest? The comment about everyone knowing your "number" definitely resonates. Even if you already know you're among the heaviest, no one would want others to know the exact weight! I definitely want more. I also know kids who would want more. Keep being brave. :) Margaret

    5. And I, too, agree with Nora (and Margaret!) but needed to see it flipped to see where you needed to go next. Nora is right. I had no choice is the best opening sentence! Keep going!

    6. Thank you so much! What is so hard about getting feedback is that there are so many (good) opinions! I have just recently shared the first 10 pages of my manuscript with some teachers/writers and I am honestly afraid that they will all say something different! I have so many questions for Wednesday's ask anything day! Thank you!!!

  15. Hi, Nora!

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I am in complete awe that I am learning about “first lines” from one of my favorite authors (I’m a bit nervous about posting my own opening lines because of this). I can’t even begin to count how many of your books I have passed along (actual copies or just titles) to my students. Keep writing and I will keep passing them along.

    The first line (and paragraphs) hooked me. I am very curious about Grace (her background; her personality). I’m also intrigued by her relationship with Cat. Being a middle school teacher, this seems real to me and I find that my students love story plots that mimic real life (in their middle school lives). Many of my own students, mostly the girls, but even some of the boys, love middle school romance.

    I wonder if you continued the dialogue if the reader might get a better understanding of Grace and Cat’s relationship, and more importantly, the infatuation with Luke. It could be a conversation at the beginning or a short conversation after paragraph three.

    Thank you again, Nora! (Still feeling a little starstruck and nervous about my own excerpt, but here goes:)

    Here’s my first line (and paragraphs):
    “Finally, we’re out of here. No more jocks, cheerleaders, cool guys, and stuck-up rich girls until September,” says Jamie as we walk down the front stairs of the middle school. It is the last day of school, a half day, and the morning sun is already hot. Summer vacation has begun!

    Jamie and I walk straight through the front of the campus towards the parent pick-up parking lot. As we walk by the bus loop, Jamie is still belittling the other students, “Steve, you know why I hate this place so much?”

    He never waits for me to answer. “It’s because all of the jocks and rich girls walk by us like we’re invisible. They think they’re better than us. They have no idea my dad makes way more money than both their mom and dad’s salaries put together.”

    I give him my usual response, “Go easy, Jamie. Do you ever think that maybe if we tried harder and talked with more people, they might like us?”

    “Are you kidding, Stevie? They think that they’re too good for us.” He gives me his usual bitter response.

    1. Andrew..your words are very kind. I am very grateful. And your nervously about posting reminds me of how hard this is. For you. And everyone and me. I am already wishing (desperately) that I had not posted my Grace story. (Gae, can you take it down. I want to address everything everyone has said..but that's another pit fall. I would suggest to every let all these comments digest before doing ANYTHING. You will never please everyone..although as writers, that's exactly what we want to do.
      This is hard. And scary. And hard.
      I love what you are doing here..and I wonder if you realize what you've set up. Because it's risky. And it's interesting.
      You open with a character who is not your main character. We are first introduced to Jamie, who is not particularly likable..and then you give us ( I presume) your main character, Steve who is not as assertive. Steve is telling the story, but Jamie is dominating it. (echoes of The Great Gatsby)
      which is why the line "Summer vacation has begun" didn't seem to fit. Or rather, is not necessary.
      We like Steve..he is clearly nicer but I am very intrigued and interested in Jamie. And I imagine you know all this already, but as a reader I am going to want to know WHY Jamie is so nasty. And why, if his father is so rich (how he knows this is another big question) he is so angry and jealous. Something happened to this boy. He seems to feel he has been relegated to some lower class which is not about money. I am dying to know what? But what ever it is, it ties him to Steve (more echo of The Great Gatsby)
      Here is my suggestion. More detail. More salient details..not just any ones. The name of the middle school. Steve would use the proper noun or just say "middle school" rather than "the middle school." Would Steve maybe name some of the he is disparaging them. These details will make your writing pop. Come to life. Feel more real and immediate.

    2. THANK YOU, Nora!
      I GREATLY appreciate your honest and thorough feedback. Whenever I reach out to an author about a Skype or FaceTime visit, I often think of the little boy (main character) in Love That Dog, who writes a letter to Mr. Walter Dean Myers about visiting his school. The boy shows how nervous he is with his words because he KNOWS how busy Mr. Myers is. I felt that way today. I know that you must be very busy, so to take time away from writing to give honest feedback to novice writers like myself (although, after reading other posts, I believe that there are some very talented writers among us) is GREATLY APPRECIATED. Thank you again for the feedback and the inspiration. Off to write!:)

    3. Andy, you got some great feedback there -- and more insightful (the pros not just the constructive stuff) than I could have ever given.

      You don't need me today! But I loved reading it. Keep going, friend. <3

  16. Hi Dana! Thanks for your comment on what I shared. You're very sweet. :)

    I actually love your first line as you have it now! I would say that was a good switch because it gets us curious but then you also explain in the first few paragraphs. And then how you end here is great because there's a sense of adventure and running away and I want to go with her. Although I'm not actually sure if this is a girl or boy mc, just FYI. There's one little piece that stands out to me and that's the part about she just figured it out this morning that she's the heaviest kid. I'm wondering why she wouldn't have known this already? So maybe switch it so that she knows she's the biggest but it's not cool to have to face it and for everyone to actually really know. Or maybe even just take that part out. Totally your call of course but it made me wonder why he or she didn't realize before. Otherwise, I definitely want to read more so keep going!

    1. Great advice Jen! Thank you! Others have said they weren't sure if my MC was a boy or girl. It is a girl and it is the first day of school which I explain in the next two paragraphs. Hmmm...good things to think about!

    2. Love to see you turning over the advice, Dana. Note the comment Nora wrote above to Andy, too, because it's important:

      "I would suggest to every let all these comments digest before doing ANYTHING. You will never please everyone..although as writers, that's exactly what we want to do.
      This is hard. And scary. And hard."

      This is the Most True Advice. <3

      Keep going. Can't wait to read more!

  17. One of my favorite opening lines is ironically from a book that I didn't really like, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." (p. 3)

    I took a couple of story starters and wrote first lines for them. I tried each of the different types of first sentences: dialogue, description, and narration.

    Premise: Your parents tell you that you’re moving across the country.
    First line: Nothing hurt quite like dropping a box full of books on your toe.

    Premise: At the beach, you find a special seashell…
    First line: She had never seen shell glitter like that in the sunshine.

    Premise: At summer camp, the boys and girls wage a prank war against one another.
    First line: "You're on!" the boys shouted at the girls, who were huddled together, giggling, outside the boys' teepeed cabin.

    Premise: At the library, you find a photo in a book.
    First line: "No one has checked out that book in years," the librarian whispered as he pulled it off the shelves.

    Premise: Your best friend is elected President.
    First line: It was a cold, grey November day.  It would be completely unremarkable you weren't sitting in the Oval Office across from your best friend, the new President of the United States.

    Premise: You come home from school to find a box on your porch. What’s inside?
    First line: As she walked up the front step, slipping a bit on the ice, she thought excitedly of the warm house inside.  Then she saw the box.

    1. Andrea- this is crazy. I love it. Did you make up these prompts? or get them from somewhere? I invite all teachers to "borrow" this writing exercise..(unless it's well known and I am the last to know) What fun. Okay..since you've given us so many I'll tell you which ones stick in my mind. Which ones would keep me reading and why.
      number one, the library one. Not because I can see the photograph in this first sentence (only in the prompt) but the mystery of it. I am totally intrigued. Why does the librarian whisper (notice word choice important)?
      And ha! did you see some tweeter bot read your tweet and gave you alternative spellings for teepeed. I am confused by the image actually. Is it a teepee or a cabin? or a teepee-shaped cabin? I only nitpick because of the part of my lesson "Can you draw a picture of it?"
      The best lines (almost without exception, although there always are) are the ones we can SEE. Like the librarian.
      If I had to make suggestions (like I wrote to Andrew) more details.. more specifics. . Glittering in the sunshine is a bit generic. Could you make that more exact. Use more color, more visual?
      Waling up the front steps..Where? Is this a log cabin in 1820 Kentucky? Or a brownstone in Brooklyn?
      My second favorite is "Nothing hurt quite like dropping a box of books on your toe"..and that is because of the voice. There is a tone. A kind of humor that is conveyed. We know this person in some ways, already. So we are willing to continue along and hear their story.

    2. This is really clever and fun, Andrea! I love looking at opening lines out of context, too. I agree with Nora, that the librarian whispering sets up a lovely mysterious tone for something exciting. Will you continue any?

    3. I love this as a classroom (or workshop) exercise too! So stealing. What a fun share, Andrea! The librarian one is my favorite, too!

  18. Nora (and Gae), thank you for this invaluable lesson. I am excited to use these ideas with my students! I am also excited that they have given me some ideas for the "leads" in the chapters of my work in progress.

    But first, Nora's excerpt. What works? The opening dialogue. There is a comfort in the relationship, and a humor that is elicited in the "What did you expect?" comment. You get the feeling that these girls are very close, and that, despite the MC's sense that she is often misunderstood, she is okay with her friend poking fun and giving her a reality check. What doesn't? This line didn't flow for me: "For quite a while now, Grace suspected that other people didn’t have the same commentary constantly running through their head, mostly self-critical, often times, half a click away from panic." I think it's the word commentary. Is Grace questioning whether others have a running commentary, or whether it's a negative, half-panicked one? Am I compelled to keep reading? Absolutely! I really want to know why she has needed to teach herself this dance.

    In light of your advice, I re-read the opening of my WIP. I had revised it several times last summer, and posted it during TW camp 2015. I think it works. What I believe is going to change now is the openings of my subsequent chapters (but that is work for another day). This is a memoir in verse.

    The Uber
    is running late.
    4 minutes becomes 9,
    becomes 12.
    My husband calls.
    I am just around the corner,
    the driver assures him.
    I want to throw up.
    I want to be at the restaurant.
    I swallow my annoyance.
    I could have been there,
    if we’d walked.
    I need to be there.
    I need to see him the second he walks in.
    There it is!
    We jump in the car,
    apologies from the driver
    No problem, Eric says.
    I check my phone.
    Crap! I missed a text.
    It’s Jeremy-- 4:26 pm
    “I am leaving soon.”
    4:50 pm-- I reply
    Ok. We’re in an uber on our way.
    I want to teleport.
    Each moment in this car is molasses.
    I don’t want to miss a second with that child,
    now a man,
    with hours left until he boards a plane.
    I am going to throw up.

    1. Dalila! I love the repetition of throwing up. I love how you say the car is molasses, not that the drive there feels like molasses. It is such a strong line! :) Miss talking to you! Let's connect soon!

    2. Dalila- So many things to watch out for when we are doing these short shares of work, out of context. And I am learning so much about my own work.
      thank you for saying this:
      There is a comfort in the relationship, and a humor that is elicited in the "What did you expect?" comment. You get the feeling that these girls are very close, and that, despite the MC's sense that she is often misunderstood, she is okay with her friend poking fun and giving her a reality check.
      That is exactly what I was intending..exactly. OMG..what a wonderful feeling of being "heard".
      And your not working comments feel very spot on as well. Thank you. (damn this is hard, isn't it?)
      now, clearly you as well..have put your heart into your work. (and I say that not only because it is a memoir) I felt I was this voice when you wrote. I am completely and totally WITH you on you Are you. Which is exactly why I'm going to say what I'm going to say next.
      Why are you withholding the important information? The reason for her anxiety and for what is clearly as very very tenuous, even sad, maybe tragic back story. (at least that's how it reads to me)
      again, I am wondering how much I am sensing this because I am only given this short piece and I am left hanging. But it also has to do with how intimate this piece very intimate. The voice, the writing style, the urgency is fierce. So why are you teasing the reader, who is essentially YOU. I don't want to feel tricked or manipulated. Now again, I don't know how quickly you are going to reveal this to us, so my comments might be all for naught.
      one tiny, specific. I had to read the line "My husband calls" many times before I understood that he was calling the uber driver. I thought he was calling the narrator at first which threw me off. Maybe "My husband check up" Or "My husband calls the driver.." Some such. I was just confused at first. And every single word here counts. so very very lovely. and powerful. Now you need to tell me what is going on??? I need to know.. :)

    3. I wonder, Dalila, that even if you think... *think* there isn't something more urgent underneath (or if you knew it but didn't plan to reveal it -- this wasn't a story about that, e.g.) that we the reader can, indeed, feel it. I am curious too.

      I also love the opening line "The Uber/is running late." It immediately tells us where we are in time... LARGER time. 2016, NOW, Within the last year. Very nice. Funny, I had the opposite reaction to the molasses line that Dana did... for me, I wanted something not so cliche. Even though you don't say "slow as molasses. . ." But again, there are points Nora and I have agreed on exactly without knowing what the other commented, and things we disagreed on. It's why this is all so subjective and merely food for thought. (Having said that, I agree with Nora's other comments), and I love that you are working on this in the way that you are. Keep going!

  19. This is an impressive, helpful and useful post! Invaluable advice and I thank you for sharing. I appreciate the opportunity to share this into to my MG piece:

    “Check out the icicles hanging from The Cassidy.” I stood in awe next to my friend, Drew. Silent reverence embraced me. There were nearly fifteen robust icicles, stalactite models, hanging from the Cassidy Yards Manor Retirement Community. Snow day sounds of plow trucks scraping, kids scrambling on sleds, and cars beginning to slowly navigate streets faded. We eyed the curtain of ice and I knew we had the same idea.
    “This could be the Olympics of icicles right here, Drew.” Without taking my eyes off the prize, I bent to scoop snow. Drew was ahead of me. Silently we patted. Silently we rounded. Silently we scoped out our own icicle to pummel.
    “On three,” Drew commanded. “Don’t tell me which one you’re going for.” I nodded in concentration and agreement.
    “One!” My arms rose.
    “Two!” I aimed.
    “Three!” I fired.
    The crash was immediate and stunning. Shards of ice and glass showered the sidewalk and both of us. The dining room window of Cassidy Yards Manor Retirement Community cracked, arrows shooting in all directions, and collapsed with no ability to sustain support.

    Thanks again!

    1. Ah! wow..This is a complete short short story. You know there is such a thing. And sometimes literary magazines have short short story contests. Loved this. So satisfying. You must tell me, is this the beginning of a novel or story..or is this it. Done. As is?
      Because it certainly could be. What a setting you created. When I close my eyes I see it! I see white snow, ice, mittened hands, warm breath hanging the air. I see it all. You did a wonderful job..tone, POV,'s all there. Wonderful.
      My suggestions..if you want the. Lose the first line. I am not even sure who is speaking and I am much more draw in by the second two lines. The two characters ARE checking it out. So why say it.
      I never begin a story with dialogue which is why it was so very brave of me to share the piece I did. It was very out of character for me. It's hard to do it well..and writers often use it as a safety net, when it is quite the opposite. Take a look at your story without it and see what you think.
      and my only other nit picking thing is the very last sentence. I didn't need that either. The window shatters...The window a retirement community. Oh my goodness. These poor kids! Less is so so much more. I don't need to see them. Or any explanation. The splintered glass does the best job ever.

    2. Kate,

      A wonderful excerpt! And I agree with Nora on both points!

  20. Hi, Nora (and Gae!).

    Thank you for this helpful post. It all sounds so simple, doesn't it? Yet we struggle and labor over those words, begging them to come to us...

    How did you know what my thoughts were (are?) about those infatuation fantasies that played out in my mind as a teen? You nailed it. Thanks for the flashback.

    For my excerpt (ahem), I truly have only one line (ok, two, but the second one is a bonus that came from out of nowhere). I have nothing more than these two lines. I do know my character's age (12ish, boy) and the setting (1970s Upstate NY). And that he's running away from (or to) something or someone. This is a story that is waiting patiently in my mind while I finish my current WIP (and move on to another one that I shared last week).


    Denny jumped on the train as it crept through the quiet Upstate village at 3:30 am. He waited for the whistle he knew would blow, but he still nearly peed his pants when it did.

    1. Wendy- I love that you've shown us only two sentences. And that you've shared it's only a forming idea. . not even the story you are currently working on. Thank you for doing this. What an insight into process.
      As it is, that's what it feels like..the formation of a story. It's kind of floating. What you do have is tone! It is serious..but not scary. It has a sense of voice, already. Again (word choice) peed his pants. You are using a distant narrator..which gives this an old fashioned, kind of classic story telling tone. I almost see him wearing overalls. I don't know why. Anyone else see that? Or rather, what do you see this boy wearing? I'd be interested in hearing that.
      You might want to place the town already (I know it's early in the process) because that is going to affect many things. What time of year it is, is also going to be important. Doesn't your narrator know what town they are passing through..since you've used an omniscient voice (at least so far)
      You've set up so much ..he is so on edge that something he expecting, startles him. And he is up at 3:30 in the morning. Reminds me of the start to Belle Prater's Boy. Mysterious but very accessible. Nothing more to say..let it bloom. I look forward to hearing what Denny is running from..or to!

    2. All that Nora said. Don't have much more on two lines. But I like them!

  21. Thank you for sharing your lesson and allowing me to share my writing. I am learning so much from all of the authors and feel blessed to be going on this writing journey. Here is a passage I started on the Fourth of July. I had just started it by saying, "I woke up smelling bacon." Thank you for your suggestion of having a strong lead. I hope this stronger lead pulls my audience into the story. Thank you again and here goes....

    “Water wars in the west.” This news headline from a year ago dangles in my dream as I woke smelling bacon waffling up the stairwell. Bacon, we hadn’t had bacon for months. I pondered the smell and dismissed it as part of my dream. I lay under my thin lavender sheet, willing my eyes open. I love summer mornings in this dry environment. The coolness of this time of day is as refreshing as walking in a mountain meadow. As I tugged the sheet over my face to shield my eyes from the approaching sliver of sun shining through the curtain slit, I think about how the afternoon sun will warm the air past one hundred degrees. I imagine large sweat stains in my white t-shirt under my arms, down my back and even under my boobs as I volunteered at the refugee camp. I roll my eyes and moan. I picture Thad glancing sideways at me with his cute half grin and flexing his thin, toned biceps as he carries water pails through the crowd. I bet Thad never thought his Peace Corp job would bring him to this small western town - a town I will never escape from now!
    My mind drifts back to the bacon smell, realizing it wasn’t just part of my dream. I question why a treat of bacon today? Then I remember it is the 4th of July. I wonder why mom holds onto celebrating a holiday for a country that no longer exists?

    1. I was not expecting that!! cool. Nicely done. I am a huge fan of the movie Independence Day so I love how you used the holiday we are so familiar with and twisted it around.
      Now..crazy as this sounds. I like your original first line better. I woke up smelling bacon. I mean, why not? I am not convinced that the narrator wakes up with this very specific (and of course, confusing to us) headline in their head.
      When I say a strong lead (although I think that's your term) doesn't have to mean just the first line. This is a very strong lead, Leanna because of the twist ending. It is built -in drama. So starting in a very casual familiar way, the bacon cooking (or not) and letting us they haven't had it in a while (again, not so unusual) and then bam! there is nothing familiar about this story at very well. I am more concerned with the things she is pondering. Thinking about her sweaty shirt? Is that her concern? Or this boy SEEING her sweaty shirt. "As I volunteer at the refugee camp" Or "When I volunteer" Try and use the less passive voice.
      Would she say "small western town" or would she name her own town. I think you can do more to layer in the water wars..or just the effects of the water wars at this point by using more specifics. Maybe naming the refugees.. like Malibu refugees..(crazy right?) which would further indicate this is not going to be your ordinary bacon story. I also love the premise..Kate Messner wrote a middle grade weather/global warming story which I loved. We need more!! it is such a terrible, unserved story..and kids are the one who need to hear it.

    2. Thank you so very much for taking your time to give me feedback. It is all wonderful and helpful! I felt vulnerable posting, however your critique was kind, right on the nose and respectful. Again, thank you!

    3. Hi Leanna! I'm so glad to see you here too. :) You definitely have me hooked - I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic YA. I especially like this because it is going to read (I think) like realistic fiction with that slight twist that makes it speculative - the water wars.

      I think teens will relate because in the midst of working with refugees, the lack of bacon, water shortages, etc., the MC is still worried about fitting in and what peers will think.

      I do agree with Nora's comment - starting with something as homely as bacon seems more fitting for someone just drifting out of sleep. One other slight road block for me: I got a lost a bit with the sheet, sliver of light, and sun warming the air. Maybe a bit too much description? It took me out of the sense of the larger setting. I definitely want more of the story though - keep going! Thanks for sharing. Margaret

    4. I agree with Nora (and Margaret!) too. Love the simplicity of "I woke up to the smell of bacon..." Because it leads us to think normal when it is anything but (our current) normal. I love the hook of that last line. Watch tenses. Are you writing in present or past. Stay consistent, though this is something easily addressed on revision.

      Keep going!


  22. Thank you for taking the time to coach us and to provide such valuable feedback! I am learning so much from reading all of the comments.

    I have included a snippet of an opening to my WIP.

    The loneliness pressed on Sam like a blanket that was slowly trying to suffocate her. It wasn’t so bad during the week, but Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday were all stretched out in front of her. Once she counted up the number of hours from the time she got off the bus at her house on Friday afternoon to the time she boarded the bus again on Monday morning, but that number was too depressing.

    1. Wahoo... Nora's comment to your excerpt posted below her comment to the next excerpt. Just want to make sure you see it!


  23. Nora, your 'first line' lesson humbled and inspired me! Thanks! Also, loved nine, ten - it brought back a lot of emotions and memories.

    As for the feedback:
    1) Grace's personality comes through very strongly. It's easy to empathize with her insecurities, anxieties and isolation. The perspective is complex but works - Grace's running thoughts about how her best friend would react to her attraction to Luke perfectly depicts how Grace's mind works. A crush on a mysterious boy also propels the reader to want to know more - I am so curious if Luke is a real person or only a part of her imagination. "It was a dance...." the foreshadowing also peaks my interest.

    2) I might want to see a little bit more of what is going on outside Grace's head - just a snippet, a teaser really.

    3) Wild horses couldn't keep me from finishing this book! I'm not just curious about the crush and the plot, but I would be fascinated to see how you write about such an introverted character.
    Thanks, Jennifer Kraar,

    Rusty flung the letter pieces off the table with a swipe of his hand as if he was pushing away his mother's words. He shot up and knocked his chair belly up As he charged to his room his mother's word's chased him. "We're moving," she'd told him. in the darkness of his room he threw himself on his bed and smooshed his face into his soccer pillow. Finally his tears fell.

    Pictures floated in his head; learning to play hopscotch on the sidelines, kicking the ball to Charlie for her winning goal, and eating pizza shoulder to shoulder with his friends after the game.

    "I'm not going anywhere!" Rusty told his soggy pillow. It was then that he smelled fresh grass. Looking up Rusty noticed that his door frame looked as if it was a movie marquee flashing red and white.

    1. What a great first image and you rendered it so well. He has already torn up his mother's letter (we assume) and he's sends it flying. We all understand the emotion that he is expressing with that action. No better way than to show and not tell us. Then he throws the chair, also love how you describe this "Belly up". I would be careful about using the same expression twice in the same paragraph. "His mother's words" It is such a great image of the words chasing him, not letting him go,upsetting and hurting I would suggest changing it to something else in one of the two places you have it. I also love your use of the word smooshed. This sets the tone so well. The list of things he will miss..and crying into his pillow all works so well.
      The next thing we know something magical is happening (correct?) ..he has been transported? I wish I could see a little bit further ahead to know if I am right. but assuming I am, it is such a tricky and very difficult thing to create magic that has no origins or reason for being but just "happens." It is similar to needed motivation for a character's actions and decisions otherwise, it feels as if the author and not the character is acting, thinking, feeling,doing. Can you find a way to make us ready for this change? Find a way to explain the unexplainable?
      Set it up so when it happens we completely believe it. No easy task ..I know. Again, you might need to just write the whole story and then go back and weave in these details .so I say, just keep writing!

    2. That last entry was for you, Jennifer Kraar..sorry I didn't say hello right up top. Hello! And thank you for your comments on my work. I am seeing I need to clarify "the dance" since everyone is making the same observation. Grace's mother committed suicide when Grace was a little girl (as mine did) so her overly sensitive nature, even paranoia comes from a PTSD kind of syndrome.

    3. I'm curious to know what's happening next as Nora is -- which is a GOOD thing (think, hooked! or compelled...) but I wasn't thinking it was going to be a magical thing, rather something like a new friend or someone doing something with lights -- whatever. Which makes Nora's point even stronger if it IS in fact magical... we need something more... not a ton but something. And, of course, we'll find out soon enough. But a bit more magic lead up would be nice if that's what it is...

      Keep going!

  24. Wahoo (are you a UVA alumni?) Thank you for sharing you work. I am already heart broken. And pretty nervous. Usually kids are nervous about going TO school not their time at home (although I was as a kid, which might be why this made me so uncomfortable)
    I'm going to give out a piece of advice..that I got from a college professors, many many many (yes, I'm old) years ago because I think it applies here and we can all benefit from it.
    Look at your work and see how much from the very beginning can you just cut. Just cut. delete. do away with.
    Maybe the first sentence.
    maybe the first paragraph.
    maybe the whole first chapter.
    In this case, I don't know what that first line is doing to help the story. When you give the specifics of her fear that is engaging. The concept of loneliness is so abstract (and the simile of the blanket I don't think is working. It's somewhat of a cliche and a blanket doesn't really have an intention, right?) Now look how powerful your story is. Nothing is lost. Not the tone. Not the POV. Not the setting (which we don't really know yet..other than she is a student and she takes a bus to school..which is actually quite a bit of information)
    I hope we learn quickly what is frightening this girl. I am totally intrigued and in fact, will be very upset until I learn she is safe. thank you very much.

    1. Wahoo,

      You do have the set up here of a lovely, poignant story/moment we can all connect with and want to see resolved (meaning conflict) which is great. Nora is exactly right -- and I had the same exact thought -- about the blanket and some other excess... and you don't need it. "Her loneliness pressed in" is powerful enough without needing a metaphor or writerly thing there, esp. one that doesn't quite work, etc.

      I think what you should do is keep writing into this story... I bet as you get to know the character and where her story is going, you will find the real starting place and first line. It often doesn't present to me until my first revision of a manuscript. Keep writing. Keep showing us what Sam's story is, where it's going! Report back! Can't wait. :D

    2. Thank you for the feedback! I appreciate your suggestions because I have been struggling to find my way with this story, so I appreciate your suggestions. My MC is dealing with a lot of change in her life and really doesn't have anyone in her corner at home-there are a lot of stressors in her home (more of an emotional nature) and I've floundered with communicating that. Thank you for giving me direction!

      I am finishing grad school at UVa-I'm planning to defend my dissertation next month:)

  25. Nora, thanks for your terrific post. I will use it in class, for sure. I used it today revising some writing that I did this week. I wrote earlier in the week about one character's vice that was also a virtue. I posted the attempt, but I didn't get any feedback from it, so it kind of fed my insecurity about the subject matter. Despite that, I am soldiering on. Without sharing too much about my intent, here goes:
    "Come on, Claire. You love me, right?" Timmy said leaning back on the dock as the water kissed the shore gently. The sun was beginning to set, and the sky was turning cotton candy pink against wispy puffs of white clouds.

    "You know I do, Tim. That's not it. It's just... I don't know." Claire held onto Tim's summer-tanned legs as they dangled into the water over the edge of the dock. She kicked her feet out behind her making a small wake that disrupted the gentle lapping of the water against the banks of the lake.

    "We go through this every summer, Claire. We are together for weeks and then we don't see each other again for nearly a year. I don't think I can do this anymore. It's too hard. Girls at school come at me, Claire. I keep blowing them off, but they keep coming at me. I'm only human. No one can figure out why I won't go out with them. The guys make jokes about my imaginary girlfriend. I know it shouldn't bother me, but it does."

    "Well, you should go out with them, if that's what you want," Claire said. She stopped kicking the water and let go of Tim's legs. She stood up and put some distance between them.

    "It's not what I want!" Tim responded, his voice rising. "I want you, but I have needs. I just want to show you how much I love you."

    "You do show me, Timmy. You show me when we laugh about the same things, when we snuggle on the couch watching movies, when you take my side when the others tease me. That's how you show me."

    "You don't understand because you’re a girl. If you really loved me, you would want me to be happy."

    "You aren't happy?" Claire's forehead furrowed causing her brilliant blue eyes to squint a bit. Her blond hair tumbled past her shoulders in damp clumps. She leaned her athletic, tanned body forward inadvertently in concern.

    "That's not it. I just want to make you happy. I know I can make you happy if you just let me. It's what couples do when they've been together as long as we have. I'll be gentle. I'll be careful. I love you."

    Claire did not respond. She knew Tim loved her. She knew she loved him. What was her problem? What was his problem? Why couldn't he just wait for her to feel comfortable? Maybe she was making too big a deal out of this?

    "I love you, too," she finally said quietly, the sun melting slowly into the lake.

    1. You give us so much good information in this short excerpt, Susan! I get a great picture of where they are with the dock, shore, and water, and the time of day; the history between them; and then the abrupt change in tone as Claire releases his legs and steps back.

      I'm a bit confused by the opening scene of him leaning back with legs dangling and her lazily kicking while clinging to his legs, though, because the visual is broken up by dialogue. I also wonder if Claire would feel the tension sooner and step away earlier, after the first line, maybe? It sounds like this might be a conversation they've had before and yet it takes her a moment to see where it's going. That said, the fact that she isn't angry or more assertive gives insight to her character, so maybe her reluctance to hear the same arguments and her desire for him to be happy are telling.

      I'm intrigued by the characters you're creating and interested to know how they resolve their differing views. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Susan- I am so so so glad you are jumping in again. I can tell you from my end it can get very confusing and I can easily see something slipping by with all the comments and post and replies. Thank you for hanging in.
      So here' the thing..I kind of wish you had shown your intent and also I don't understand what you meant when you wrote: about one character's vice that was also a virtue. Is it Claire or Tim you are referring to? So now, here's the thing and I wonder why it is so hard for me to do this, when it happens to me ALL the time and I need to completely rewrite my work. And I mean, completely and maybe several times from scratch.
      You can clearly write and write well. I love your descriptions of the water, the sun, the mood and setting are excellent. But I am getting a very strong sense that you have an agenda with this story. It has the feel of instruction and morality and that is a very dangerous thing. Now, don't get me wrong..we all have our agendas as writers. We all have our opinions and politics but as I say in my workshop. If you want to send a message use western Union.
      In fiction, you must be more subtle. Especially when writing for teenagers. You need to find the story that tells your story and allow the characters to organically evolve toward the "message" (and I am loathe to even use that word) you are hoping for.
      What would really help (I think) is if you rewrote this in first person. .and really really get into the head of that person. Don't write from this distant narrator because I think that is getting you stuck in your own head.
      Please let me know if this makes any sense to you..if it rings true. Or if I am any where near close to what you were intending for this story.

    3. Jen, thank you for your kind words. I have been struggling with this quite a bit.
      Nora, I am so glad you brought up the "message" thing. That is not at all what I am going for, but maybe that is in my subconscious. My intent is to explore a situation that happens all over the country, every day. It's not a right or wrong tale. It's more of a story of what happens when there is no conclusive dialogue exchanged. I am intending to write a story about what happens to the dynamics between family and very close friends when best friends' children have been in a long term "relationship" that is pushed too far, too soon (that is my bias, I guess). My thinking is that when you fail to speak up, are you a victim? Does Tim even know that he's done anything "wrong" if there is no dialogue. If there is no, "No, means no?"
      I want to explore this from many different angles, so I'm not sure I can get into either character's head directly. Maybe the same scene written from each perspective? The consequences of the upcoming event are far reaching, and slow to evolve, is this a story worth telling? I am overcome with anxiety about it, as it hits close to home. Thanks for your input.

    4. Hi, Susan,

      I think you have some lovely writing and scene setting here and you will really make it shine if you pull back. Don't overwrite. Don't add more than you need to. Your descriptions of common things -- water lapping -- etc. can be more than we need and slow down what is obviously a tense and dramatic scene. I took the liberty of doing a super speed flash edit on the first half to show you a bit what I mean. As for Ms. Cadwell's comment, I agree that some of the logistics are confusing, and part gets simplified by pulling back on the overly wordy descriptions (I think Claire is in the water when the scene starts? So I tried to place her there for the reader -- I mean she must be if Tim's legs are dangling and she grabs hold of them. But then she stands up, but one can't really just stand like that in the water where a dock is normally. The dock is in deeper water... So I may be wrong about how I played with that, but read more for how I pulled back repetitive or unnecessary words... Also, Nora is correct that, because you tell so much in your dialogue, it doesn't feel authentic. Young adults which is what they seem to be, right? They don't include so much stuff in their dialogue, especially on awkward, uncomfortable and heated stuff. Watch Geoff Herbach's video on cracked dialogue. I posted a link to it last week, but will find it and post it again below. I tried to do that a bit with your dialogue, just playing with it to get it to be more natural and less seeming as if it is intended to convey both sides of a message you want your reader to know...

      Here's what it might look like upon revision:

      "Come on, Claire. You love me, right?" Timmy leaned back on the dock as the water kissed the shore. The sun was beginning to set, turning the sky cotton candy pink against wispy white clouds.

      "You know I do, Tim. That's not it. It's just... I don't know." Claire paddled a bit to stay afloat, then held to Tim's tanned legs that dangled over the edge of the dock and kicked her feet, making a small wake that disrupted the gentle lapping of the water.

      "We’ve got weeks, Claire. Barely. Then I don’t get to see you for nearly a year. I don't think I can do this again. Anymore. It's too hard. Girls at school come at me. . . I blow them off but. . . I'm only human. The guys make jokes about my imaginary girlfriend. I know it shouldn't bother me, but it does."

      "Well, you should go out with them, if that's what you want." Claire stopped kicking and let go of Tim's legs. [how does she get from water to standing?] She stood up. She needed to put some distance between them.

      "It's not what I want!" Tim said, his voice rising. "I want you, but I have needs. I just want to show you how much I love you."

      I stopped there because you'll have to play with the rest because it really feels like it follows a script after that, each YA saying what they should say in that scenario. But would they speak so perfectly? So well thought out, etc?

      One last thing. Not sure where you posted during the week and didn't get feedback, but this here on Friday's is really the only place that feedback is definitely guaranteed (and then only if one follows the rules and posts by end of Friday. I don't guarantee that I or any guest authors return after that) but if it was in the comments to another TW day, there def is no guarantee (and you likely won't) get direct feedback... I only tell you this so you don't take it personally! It's not about you or your writing. It's either not customary or someone missed your comment, which is so easy to do! I've accidentally done it here too.

      Keep writing. Hope this all makes sense!!!

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Thanks so much, Gae. I think I revised myself out of authenticity. My first drafts looked more like your super fast one did, but I felt like they might not give enough background info. As for the dock/water Torch Lake, Michigan, the water rises very gradually. It deepens to about waste deep for about 50 yards and continues gradually until the drop off. If you are in Michigan during the summer, you should pop by for a swim. The water is so clear that you can see your toes when the water is at your chin. I suspect you would love it. I'm actually not kidding about a visit. Message me if you are ever interested. I'll be there Sunday until August 9th.

    7. Thanks, Susan! So kind.

      I bet the cracked dialogue video will help you and you can do all the things you want to do if you take your time and let them unfold more organically (I'm addressing your response to Nora too!). I think you CAN say all you want to say authentically. Maybe it won't be in one scene. Maybe all those things you want to shine a light on will need to take place over various scenes. :D

      Keep going!

  26. Nora, thank you so much for your lesson on first lines. I especially appreciated having the lines from literature included as mentor texts.

    Like so many other readers, I connected with Grace. I was certainly a thinker and a maker-up-of-fantasies when I was younger. As an adult, I question her fear that others don't constantly narrate their own lives. But I think this also shows that sense of isolation, the fear that you're not like anyone else. I have tons of questions - what is the tie of friendship between Cat and Grace? What experiences has Grace had that make her feel wanted but not, loved but not. I want to read more!


    So...heart pounding...sweat breaking first time to share on FF. This is the first part of an early (aka transitional) chapter book:

    Maverick panted. He pushed one pedal down, then the other. Sweat dripped off his nose. He shot a quick glance at the clock on the courthouse tower. Ten after. A few more yards... and... whew. The top of the hill.

    With a few more pumps of the pedals, he was flying. Down. Down. He could see the library now. Jump. Up the curb. Uh oh. A girl with long, black hair stood at the bike rack. With a scrape of burning rubber, his rear tire slid into the grass.

    The girl scuttled behind a bush. He paused to click the lock on his bike and saw the girl snatch a book off the ground. He recognized the turquoise cover of the Minecraft Construction Handbook.

    "Dude," Maverick panted. "What do you expect? You shouldn't be blocking the racks!"

    Hugo yelled from across the street. "Maverick, you were supposed to be here 15 minutes ago. I hope we can still get computers. I crafted TNT yesterday, and I want to try it out."

    The two boys carelessly shoved past the girl by the bush.

    1. Margaret- I get it. It's scary as heck..but I am so glad you did it. Really there is no way to teach writing. It is really only a matter of doing it, sharing it, and finding out what works and what doesn't. Then going back and doing it again.
      You are doing a lot right. You have the tone and the voice so perfect for this age. Personally, I can't write in this style. There is an innocence and simplicity to it, that I can't seem to figure out. I say too much, tell too much. This has just the right feel for a early reader, or early chapter book. So now I am wondering about who is telling this story..what is the POV. I mean I know it is third person and seems to be third person limited to Maverick (because we are in his head as he rides his bike..Love that action there..I could feel the air, the dive down the street, the thrill of speed..that was so well done) But when he says "Dude..what do you expect.." I am assuming he is talking to the girl (you might need to make that clearer) but he is so mean..And it's going to be hard for young readers to like him. Does she jump into the bushes because he is riding right toward her, or is she hiding? Does Maverick want that book and she got it? Why is he so mean? It's perfectly fine for a character to ACT mean..but we are going want to know why. Give him something so I can root for him.
      I am jealous of your knowledge of things like Minecraft and TNT (I'm afraid to even ask)..and I know kids will love the contemporary reference and kid like speak. You really have nailed that!
      If I have anything really wrong..let me know. I really want you to continue this have such a strong voice and a delightful style. Let me know what you were thinking about Maverick's motivation and character.

    2. Margaret!! *tosses confetti*

      You've been such a great feed backer! Glad you are jumping in for some of your own.

      I agree with Nora! So much voice and I love that you pull back or hold back and don't overwrite. that is as much of a skill as beautiful poetic writing -- maybe moreso! You create just the right voice. And, perfect action with short bursts in just the right rhythm!

      I agree with the thoughts Nora shares and I wanted to see the poor girl react! Give us that! He is rude to her (though we know it is "boy stuff" or so I think, I want to see why too. Does he have a crush on her. feel embarrassed ? or really not care. A bit more in there would go a long way.

      Keep going, and yay!!!

    3. Nora & Gae, thank you so much for such encouraging feedback. I don't know if you're still hanging around for answers, but just in case...

      As a teacher of upper elementary aged kiddos who speak other languages at home and/or who have been "identified" as "struggling" readers, I LOVE transitional chapter books in which the characters are at an ambiguous age. Though marketed by the industry for 2nd-grader-ish kids, I have 5th graders who can find success with these books. My students LOVE the Minecraft handbooks, but those don't have a narrative arc. There's really nothing out there that hits this age/reading stamina point that includes Minecraft, so I'm trying my hand at it. (And no, I don't know tons about the game...learning and reading about Minecraft as I write.)

      For this market, I get about 5000 words. I have a ms that's mostly plotted (with a few holes) that hits about 5200. I'm currently working on adding more personality to the kids. I have four characters and the internal story I'm going for in this ms is Maverick to become more sensitive to others and Sofia (the girl in the bushes) to stand up for herself more. The early drafts focused so much on plot, the kids didn't really come alive. I probably over-drew that for Maverick in this opening. In the very next section, we'll meet Sofia and another girl. Your comments help me know to add more actual reaction for Sofia and maybe tone down Maverick's rudeness, or at least give the reader something to like about him. I'll keep working.

      Thanks again *repeatedly nods & cheers* for your encouraging words. They are very helpful and give me things to think about as I revise the opening and remaining chapters.

    4. Hanging around sort of... but already need to start getting ready for next Friday, so...

    5. Wow! I like the action, I like the short and pithy vocabulary. I like the minecraft and going to the library. I think this is a strong start. I teach MS ... with a LOT of ELLs so I know there is a huge need for books with interesting/current topics and easier reading levels. Bravo for writing transitional. I'd love to see the next bit.

  27. I do a short story writing unit with my 8th graders every year, and last year I really tried to get them to start their stories when the action starts. Sone of them got it, some didn't. I hope you don't mind if I add your lesson on first lines. I think it will help many students.

    I've been struggling with the opening of the middle grade WIP I've been working on for the last two summers (I'm about one-third finished). I recently cut out the first 4000 words or so, trying to find the place where the story really starts. I'm still not entirely happy (so much so that I was too scared to share it last week). After reading your lesson this morning, I added the two lines of dialogue. I think I'm closer, but I just don't know. Thanks for any words of wisdom.

    Joanne and Josh stand in front of their new house at 221 Milton Mountain Road and admire the view. The house is 200 feet up the lower slope of Milton Mountain, overlooking the Newfound River valley — Newfound Lake to the northeast, Milton Mills to the south, further south into Brighton Corner and on into Brighton proper, 18 miles away.
    "Wow. If this is the kind of place he lived in, maybe you should have married this guy."
    "Yea. Maybe I should have tried a little harder to let him know he had a son."

    1. Hi David! That last line is really intriguing and makes me want to know more. In the beginning I'm a little confused as to who Joanne and Josh are -- at first I assumed they were siblings, but maybe mother and son? I think I'd rather know a specific detail or two about the house than the exact location, what is most impressive about the house that the main character would notice?

      One of the things I find when I'm writing a novel is that sometimes the beginning changes after I get the draft done. So keep going!

    2. David,

      Nora MAY be gone by now... we shall see (sometimes I can't keep them away, these amazing guest authors, even though she must have spent 8 or more hours here today!!!). At any rate, you may be stuck with me.

      But you don't need me today, because Andrea is exactly right. We often don't know our real beginning until our ending is written. Or certainly more than the first third. So don't sweat it. And don't keep trying to find your beginning if you're having trouble but have already started making your way to the middle. Keep going. I bet at some point, you'll have an "aha" moment. Having said that, what i love best about this excerpt are those last two lines. Hook and compelling voice -- a bit of sarcastic/hurt snarkiness in there - tells us lots about that character. I think for now, you could give that first sentence more punch by combining the first two:

      Joanne and Josh stand in front of their new house, 200 feet up the lower slope of Milton Mountain, overlooking the Newfound River valley, and admire the view.

      If this does stay your opening you could save some of the more geographical info and put it in later a bit more organically.

      Keep writing forward! And keep writing. <3

    3. Okay'll think I'm crazy but your first line reminds me of Richard Russo's new novel. Nobody's fool.
      "Hilldale Cemetery in North Bath was cleaved right down the middle, its Hill and Dale sections divided by a two-lane macadam road, originally a colonial cart path."
      Your style is so strong. The voice is original and different..and if you are a teacher, and you read tons and tons of similar can appreciate what I am saying. Your first line stands out for that reason. I agree with Andrea that I am confused by their relationship. Is there a reason you do not identify the speakers? that would clear that right up. I think also calling home by their first names adds to the confusion. what is the POV..who is telling this story and to who (even if that is not a concrete answer) You are using present tense so you really need to have that nailed down. Again, this is where Gae and I often differ. She likes things withheld in a story..and I usually don't.
      Again, in this short piece it's hard to know. I imagine we might find out who these people are in the very next sentence.
      Here's another amazing thing. In these two short lines of dialogue we see a relationship. They are comfortable with each other..there is a connection. a good one.
      That relationship, along with the unique writing style is working for me! But you need to answer our questions..who are these two. I want to know.

    4. Well, now I feel badly about touching a Richard Russo-like first line by combining two! My issue was the repetition of the word Milton three times in two lines, so that's why I combined. Don't listen to me... listen to Nora. I've sold three books. She's sold 13+ <3 :D

  28. Thank you, Nora, for your wonderful explanation of beginnings and the necessary ingredients. It has me rethinking things.

    And I know you said you don't usually start your own work with dialogue, but I love it! It shows so much about Grace and her relationship with Cat. I feel both the fondness and the frustrations. I would love to read more. (I am also excited to see what a prolific writer you are and can't wait to read and add an armload of books to the classroom library!)

    I shared my opening to my WIP last week, but have since reworked it, jumping ahead to start at a different point. I'd be curious to hear what Gae and Jen Vincent think in comparison, and how it does or doesn't work as a beginning. (I'm thinking the list of helping all the other kids instead comes later.):

    When I close my eyes I still hear their shouts. “Lola! LowwwwwwwLa!” Some voices are deep, others high, and all are loud. Those are the cries I associate with her name now, cries getting more desperate in the dimming light, growing more tired and hoarse, competing with the relentless crashing waves beyond the lawn’s edge. I wish, instead, I could hear the way Lola said her name to new people she met, the little question mark at the end of her “Lo-la?” I’d rather hear her sweet, lilting voice that could be loud and silly when she was tired or overstimulated.

    Nobody came right out and blamed me to my face. Nobody said, “Where were you? Why weren’t you watching her?” Most people hugged their own children tighter, and declined the next poor kid’s birthday invitation like he was a leper. Nobody on the catering staff, pony rental staff, or nanny list were fired. No one was held responsible. But it had to be somebody’s fault, didn’t it? Kids don’t just go missing. So while nobody said it to my face, I thought it. Where was I? Why wasn’t I watching her? How could I not notice when my own little sister disappeared?


    1. Jen -
      Gosh I love this. I suspect you might want to tighten up a few words here and there that are a little redundant in the first paragraph, but I especially love the two paragraphs together - one full of sensory details and the next full of inner dialogue. Wonderful pairing and building of conflict!

    2. My eyes keep going back to the last line. I thought from the beginning that it was the mom talking. I like the twist of the sister as narrator, and it makes me wonder where the parents are. In the list of responsible parties, from the wait staff to the nanny, no mention of parents is given. This is an intriguing detail and it makes me wonder about your purpose in leaving the parents out of this opening scene. I want to read more.

    3. Thank you, Terry and Morgan! I appreciate your feedback. Did you see what Gae did later with my first para, Terry? She's brilliant- and you saw the need, too. This whole process is so helpful.

    4. Jen (Ms. Caldwell- I am stunned by this opening..but not turned away, so of coure, that means it's working. (I too wrote a novel about a sister who is -but isn't- responsible for her sister's death (not disappearance) and I based it on my own feelings of guilt for my mother's death (which of course, I really wasn't..but that's what kids do) So this story is close to my heart and it intrigues me. And since it's something I am personally familiar with, I am also a good sniffer-outer for stories like this. And I LIKE yours. It's working. I am trusting the voice and the tone, and the experience. I really really love the first paragraph. What I love is when someone can express an experience about loss or guilt that I hadn't known before..or hadn't thought about. So when you open with the idea of last hearing the sister's name called out desperately instead of her own tiny voice..I am gripped. I mean that. I believe the narrator at that point. The second paragraph, is confusing. So while I am still "gripped" I'm not sure what's going on. It also sounds less like a kid talking. Or even a kid-memory. "most people hugged their children tighter"..that's almost a cliche and I didn't buy that she would notice that. Your first paragraph is so tight. so real. so profound. You've set yourself a high maintain the level of authenticity and depth that you've created in the first paragraph. Are you entering this story from any kind of personal experience. (Not that you have to AT all) but if I knew, I might be able to help you even more. I really love it..and now the sounds and emotion you created it going to stick me all day (gee, thats a lot.. ) :)

    5. Thank you, thank you for coming back so late/so early to respond! You are so generous with your time! You've given me good, hard things to think about- both you and Gae. Way to disagree! :)
      I do not have personal experience with this, thank goodness, and my heart bleeds to hear that you can relate so personally. I know that as I write, I can get stuck in the mood of my MC and it can be difficult to resurface sometimes.

      I'm struggling with my beginning. It is written like a preface because the story isn't about Lola going missing, but about Grace-Ann in the aftermath. So my first chapter, currently, is looking back TELLING what happened with a lot of indirect blame and anger towards others because she can't truly face that it could be her fault. The second para. today gets into that a touch, but the voice does change.
      Thanks again for your insight. No need to respond again (if you even look back!).

      (I finally figured out how to change my name to read "Jen"! I don't have to be Ms. Caldwell with my peers anymore!)

  29. Dear Nora -
    I managed to score a copy of "Nine, Ten" the day it came out and I'm creeping quietly into its pages, full of fear and grief. My son, at 12, with no baggage, read it on the way to Maine last week and we were able to talk about some of our memories of 9/11 with him.

    On your WIP above, the emotions are horribly accurate of the painful and needy crushes of early hs. You're bringing me right in. The only thing that sticks out to me is that I've always suspected that *everyone*, especially teenagers, have a constant stream of interior self criticism. (Or they're insufferable.) This might just be the difference between me and your MC, though...?

    I love your lesson and since my personal assignment for today was to start rewriting my first chapter again, the timing was brilliant. Thank you.

    Owen slipped into the girls’ bathroom.

    It was against the rules, of course, so Owen checked to make sure no one was watching.

    Owen followed rules carefully at school. But this was an emergency. Emergencies create exceptions.

    A spider was in danger and Owen was morally bound to help. As morally bound as if he’d seen a superhero’s symbol projected against a clouded sky.


    1. Ah, Terry! Ah, Owen! I don't know if Nora will be back or not, but I love that opening sentence. So simple and engaging. A boy in the girl's bathroom where he shouldn't be.The word slipped a perfect choice. Tells everything.

      Keep going!

    2. Thanks as always, Gae. I'm back from camping and hope to participate vigilantly in TW henceforth!

    3. "I managed to score a copy of "Nine, Ten" the day it came out and I'm creeping quietly into its pages, full of fear and grief. My son, at 12, with no baggage, read it on the way to Maine last week and we were able to talk about some of our memories of 9/11 with him. " This means so much to is exactly what I hoped for. Conversations that might otherwise be too hard to have..may I use this quote..(I don't have to use your name if you don't want me to) your work. .

      wow..did you see Gae's post this morning about Spiders??? is this a coincidence, Gae? or did you read this first.

      Now, I wish I could see a little more,Terry..(since not seeing enough has already thrown me off in a couple of selections) but for a first line..well, wow. This is a great one. Again..WORD choice. Slipped instead of walked is genius. And see how much we know from these few sentences. Owen usually follows rules..It has to be an emergency for him to break one. (so we get insight into his character right away)..
      We know this is from Owen's POV, close third person narrator and when we learn the emergency is to save a spider (and I love the BAT symbol mention) then we care deeply for this very sensitive boy. Are you going to see a Spider boy? The tone (although I can't tell exactly yet) is light, but sensitive. The age is young. You've established so much already. You've intrigued young readers (with the bathroom, right away) and engaged sensitive kids (readers!) with his concern for an otherwise hated creature. Personally I apologize (out loud) every time I kill a spider. But after reading the poem Gae posted..I might have to carry them outside. Wonderfull start Terry..(is there a big Terry?)

    4. Oh, Nora, Thank you! I woke up to your response and it is the best start to my writing day in forever.

      Gae read a large chunk of my full a while back, so she knows Owen and his arthropod obsession. I doubt he influenced her choice of poem- but Owen definitely has transformed my response to spiders in particular. (I leave the little house spiders alone and consider them my minions. The big ones I take outside, terrified that they'll do something I don't expect. And I saw two wolf spiders last week in Maine, carrying their babies on their backs, which is a full out Omen, since it plays into the start of my ms.)

      My book is actually about dogs, not arthropods. But I had to research the heck out of arthropods to feel legit in giving Owen his passion for them.

      There is no big Terry. I'm little Terry because socially I'm like Piglet, small and often terrified. Physically, I am a line out of a Hank Williams tune, "now my gal's short and stubby..."

      I'll PM you on fb with my full name if you want to use my name with the quote, which you have my full permission to do.

      And again, THANK YOU.

  30. Jen, I agree with Terry. This is so moving now. And the second paragraph is really brilliant. I think with some minor tightening, the first will be too. Was wondering if just the removal of the fewest words would do a lot:

    When I close my eyes I still hear their shouts --“Lola! LowwwwwwwLa!” -- some deep, others high, all loud. Cries getting more desperate in the dimming light, growing tired and hoarse, competing with the relentless crashing waves beyond the lawn’s edge.

    I wish, instead, I could hear Lola say her own name, the way she did to new people she met, with the sweet lilting question mark at the end. “Lo-la?”

    (I think you can take out the "Id rather hear" sentence... The reader gets it and the "Lo-la?" is so sweet and poignant.

    Also, Jen, as I was playing with this -- and I did it quickly so take it with MANY grains of salt! -- when I got to the part about the crashing waves... i want the narrator to react to that. If her little sister is missing and there is water near by. . . OMG, right?!?!

    Good stuff. Your voice is strong. And we feel this narrator's pain. . . and fear. <3

    1. Thank you, Gae. As usual, your mantra of "fewer words" is spot on. :) I so appreciate your (and everyone's) feedback on my work, and enjoy and learn so much by reading others' back and forth, as well. Love Teachers Write!

    2. Yay! Can't wait to read more. I hope Lo-la? is found. :\ <3

    3. Also Jen (mrs.Caldwell) I would take out the first "Lola..Lowwwllla" you don't need it.
      When I close my eyes I still hear their shouts. Some voices are deep, others high, and all are loud.
      Or maybe
      When I close my eyes I still hear them shouting her name. Some voices are deep, others high, and all are loud.

      I see Gae and I disagree with some points. interesting..very interesting..which means, you HAVE to listen only to yourself

    4. Hah, except we don't necessarily disagree... we may need more information. Because I agree with your "voice" comments on paragraph 2 IF in fact this narrator is still a kid. I read it as a distant remembering where she is thinking of this awful day from a more safe distance... if that is NOT the case, then the voice/language would, yes, reasonably get adjusted. Either way, all good food for thought and is stirring up an idea for a bonus Friday Feedback post that I think I will sneak in late July... :D

  31. Thanks so much for a great lesson today!I really enjoyed your piece about Grace. She was very real to me and also so beautifully and poetically described. I would definitely want to read more about her!

    My attempt today is late but I thought I would post it anyway, just to put it out there.

    The clock hands moved slowly around the face while Carrie sat at her desk, her teacher's voice a smudged sound in the back of her mind. She picked at the skin around her nails trying to make it smooth, worrying the skin away with small tugs and tears, fixing one rough edge but always creating more, like a sculptor chipping away at a rock trying to find the art hidden in the stone. She wanted to get back outside and see the icicle again. She prayed that no one had taken it. Snow had a value on the playground like gold or diamonds. Kids looted and pillaged forts and sculptures for a few snowballs. An icicle would be a platinum find for someone. They wouldn't realize what they had or what Carrie thought she had: something magic!

    1. Even as I read about your character's habit, my own fingers throb from where I have done the same thing. You give great words to a quality that reminds me that everyone has a nervous "tell." And the mystery around the icicle is intriguing. You nail the value of snow-treasures. The last two words don't seem to do justice to the suspense of the rest of the paragraph. Are they necessary?

    2. I love the phrase "her teacher's voice a smudged sound in the back of her mind". The picking at her fingers feels frantically nervous- beyond the average nervous tic. Does she feel things more deeply than others? I feel her need to get outside.

    3. I love the smudged sound too! and the word choice of "worrying" the skin away. Love that. Morgan's notes about your last two lines are interesting. Wonder if you would get more impact from making Carrie's knowledge stronger and therefor hint at magic vs the last line. What i mean is something like this:

      An icicle would be a platinum find for someone. They wouldn't realize completely what they had, something better, something magic. But Carrie knew.

      Or something like that that really adds to the drama.

      Take anything I just typed with a grain of salt, because I'm exhausted!

      I like where you're going here. Keep going!

    4. Diana- I am just getting to your submission now. And so glad you posted. Now, I could be missing something and maybe it is revealed later on..But you've done something here that I think it very important to talk about when writing for children ( I hope other comes back and read through)
      Your writing is beautiful. no doubt. Narrowing our vision, and bringing us into Carrie's anxiety with this raw, uncomfortable picking of her skin is lovely and powerful. But the line "snow had a value on the playground like gold or diamonds." ..has the POV of an adult. It is the perspective of a wise narrator looking back. Not the immediacy of a child's voice. Now, there is nothing wrong with this at all. It a kind of voice used in fairy tales for instance..and early fiction for children (think A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) ..AND please, since I don't know where you are going with's very hard to comment. But I thought it might be important to point out. Let me know what you think..what kind of narrator and tone you are wanting to convey.
      You do have a lovely lovely writing style..I just want to make sure you are intending this quality.

  32. I'm not sure this is the first line of my book, but maybe the first line of one of the first few chapters:

    My right hand awaits third gear, ready for the straightaway that will let me pass the rig that's already going to make me have to lie about why I'm late. My left foot hovers over the clutch pedal; my right feathers the gas.
    Without warning, brake lights ignite. Tires lock up, mine and his. My eyes go to the rear-view mirror in anticipation of the collision that the next car around the corner will bring.
    Instead, my attention is drawn back to the rig in front of me, which has just puked a half-dozen thugs coming straight for me. My hand still on the shifter, I slam my car in reverse and punch the throttle. My wheels spin, smoke and a smell that reminds me of Wednesday nights at the track fill the air. But my car does not retreat. Instead, against the desperate traction of my tires, I inch toward the now gaping belly of the beast in front of me.
    My left hand fumbles at the door handle even as my right releases the seat belt that has me pinned in place. In one motion, I am free, and as the first few inches of my escape come into view, they are replaced by the knuckles of a giant fist, one that lands square in my left temple, knocking me back into the driver's seat.
    The door slams back to its latch and I am pulled the rest of the way into the back of the truck. With no room left for my doors to open, I reach for the window button and start planning my next means of escape. My eyes catch the silhouette of a man in my rear-view mirror. With one hand, he reaches for the rope that will seal the door and my fate. With the other, he reaches up to his forehead and gives me a middle-fingered salute. The door slams down with a crashing clatter.
    Darkness surrounds me. But neither this nor the familiar signs of claustrophobia descending on my lungs are enough to distract me from one thought: "Why would Ethan, my oldest brother--the one who dropped me off at the bus stop everyday of my childhood with that same stupid salute--why would he want to kidnap me?"

    1. Whoa! I'm pulled into the action immediately (and knowing very little about cars, am impressed by your detail). The fist confuses me as I try to visualize where it came from, inside? outside? but then I'm drawn right back in and am intrigued by the recognition of his/her brother! Exciting stuff!

    2. Hi, Morgan,

      You have a super compelling scene going here, especially the information at the end. Of course this makes us want to read on, so kudos! Some of your action is amazing and some of it gets too complicated and I, as the reader, am working too hard to try to picture it all. I think you could go a less-is-more route here and give us only the essential movements in this action packed scene vs. every movement which makes the scene slower than it should be given what is taking place. Because it's a frantic near car crash, i don't think the reader needs every movement, but the broad strokes with a few of the small movements you do so well kept in and that will keep the pacing swift and the reader just staying with the breathless broad strokes. Hope that makes sense. I'm a bit tired. It's late!

      Keep going! Great stuff! :D

    3. Morgan- I will just add a tiny bit more to what Gae said (which I agree with totally) does she know this is her brother's action? And if "the man" she sees giving her the finger is her brother..then she would identify him that way from the start. If it's something else that alerts her, let us know. Super crazy it. At first, of course I thought it was a car accident. So I am to understand she knows it's not, right from the start, which explains why she undoes her seat belt (which at first upset me so much) . With your last line you give us her internal I would suggest weaving that in all along or doing without it at the end (and letting us find out what's going on later) because just adding it to the end of the scene feels like a manipulation..a gimmick to surprise us. You could pick either way...and still have an amazing opening scene. I mean, could it NOT be!!! ?

  33. Hi everyone! I am so sorry I'm posting this so late. I have been out of town, and then I got carried away reading all of the miraculous writing and feedback. I just looked down at my laptop clock and realized I still hadn't posted anything!! AH! This is my first Teachers Write, and I am in awe of everything I am reading, writing, and absorbing. Thank you all so much for taking the time to make this experience available.
    Okay, so I am still working on a fiction piece. After Sunday's session, I took a good bit of time to reflect on my characters especially, Toby. In my post last Friday we learned he has died tragically, but we don't know how. I think I know, but I'm still working on it. In my entry tonight, I am giving the reader a little more insight into my main character, Lizzie. I am thinking one way about her, but I want to see what others think before making a final decision on her or Toby. I have a lot of pieces to my puzzle and Teachers Write is helping me put them all together. I'm loving it!!

    P.S. I loved the information on first lines, Nora. SO AWESOME!!! I really appreciated the famous first line examples. This will aide me when I teach my students different ways to take hold of a reader. It doesn't always have to be, One hot day or Once upon a time. I also enjoyed how you said it doesn't always have to be the first line. You can grab your reader in the first paragraph or first chapter, as long as the reader wants to keep reading.
    Okay, I'm telling myself to shut up and get to it already.

    WIP Friday Feedback 2
    My mom and I pulled into the greasy burger joint parking lot where we've met my dad every Sunday for the past 10 years. My mom pulled her sedan into the space beside my dad's 1990 something toy car. I looked at my mom's reflection in the rear view mirror. She was looking down as she turned the car engine off. I think I may have heard her mutter something like, why does he still drive that thing? I thought, why do you care? You still get your check every month.
    We got out of our respective vehicles and my parents exchanged basic pleasantries. I leaned against my dad's faded blue car door and felt my shoulders rise towards my ears as the tension built up around me like the Great Wall of China. My parents preceded to talk "around" me while I searched for a pocket of air that wasn't being consumed by their obviously fake conversation.

    1. Hi! In case no one else is still awake, I wanted to slip in feedback for you - as always everyone is going to have different reactions, so I hope someone else gets a chance to comment.

      I think you've got Nora's POV/Setting/Tone down well here - we can fit into your narrator's uncomfortable and resentful space and hate the moment she's in - which is *beautiful*! I'd love to your (her?) voice more confident. Let her really hear her mother mutter and respond in her head rather than 'think' she hears. Let them talk around her rather than "around" her. Your "pocket of air" line is perfect. (I'd drop the obviously) and the tension building like the Great Wall of China is fabulous too - but I'd space those away from each other so your readers can savor them.

      I think, in fact, that the tension building up line is perfect to end that paragraph.

      I do wonder if the 1990s toy car is a fancy beloved sports car or a crappy old car - the mother and daughter's reactions paired together confuse me a smidge. Maybe the mother should be more clearly resentful of the car's symbolic indulgence (I *think* that's what you're implying?)

      I hope to read more from your narrator next week - I love this start!

    2. Hey, Rachel,

      Yay for sharing! I like this piece you're working on and think you do a good job with what you hoped -starting to build character for Lizzie. Hard to offer too much criticism when you're just getting started as anything I'd offer would really be more for later on revision. Having said that, I think overall, Terry gives you really great feedback in that ultimately you'll want to use action vs. passive description (elimating words like I felt, I heard, I thought vs. just showing us the character doing those things: feeling, hearing, thinking...) to drive your scene, as well as pull back on repetitive (e.g. "my mom" and mom type) language and let the scene around it shine. Even though it's really not now that you need to worry about it, I'll do a super speed flash edit so you can see what I mean:

      Mom and I pulled into the greasy burger joint parking lot where we've met my dad every Sunday for the past 10 years. As she maneuvered her sedan into the space beside his decades-old toy car and parked, I caught her reflection in the rear view mirror. Her eyes were cast down and she muttered, “Why does he still drive that thing?”
      “Why do you care?” I thought, “You still get your check every month.”
      We got out, and my parents exchanged basic pleasantries. I leaned against Dad's faded blue car door, the tension around me rising like the Great Wall of China. My parents proceded to talk "over" me while I searched for a pocket of air that wasn't being consumed by their obviously fake conversation.

      That's not saying you should keep it that way so much as to build an awareness between using passive language (telling) and active language (showing) what is happening in the story.

      Let me know if that makes sense. Meanwhile, I'm anxious to learn more about Lizzie and her mom, etc. Keep going.

    3. wow..Rachel- Gae did amazing job. She's so right about passive vs active language. I was trying to figure out how to suggest things..but I think showing is better than telling because her revision showed me so much. I couldn't add any more , other than..I totally identify with the scene. As a kid and an adult..but it is from the POV of the teenager and that is working so well. You clearly write from an open honest place...don't stop. Keep writing.

  34. Thank you so much for this really thought provoking post! I actually went against the suggestion to do it for something new that you don't plan on finishing and decided to make a first line attempt at something I have been working on in a higgledy-piggledy sort of fashion that doesn't have a beginning yet. It got me excited about something I had left on the back burner for a while :)

    First, I'll respond to what you've shared. What worked: I think that the dynamic between Cat and Grace is so believable it's scary. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Grace as someone who is sensitive and prone to flights of fancy but also not afraid to share with her friend to the point of vulnerability. I was a Grace, but wasn't secure enough to share my crush material with friends.
    What doesn't work: It's not that it doesn't work, but there is a line ("Luke hadn’t rejected her in the hall; she had set herself up") that I think would be more vivid if there was some hint of exactly what HAD happened in the hallway built in to that sentence.

    I would keep reading because I harbor a secret hope that something will click and Luke will remember her and it will be a mad-love affair. I want good things for Grace!

    Here's my bit:
    I stood at the bottom of a cliff, observing the broad bands of color that seemed to undulate as clouds passed overhead. “Were not planning on climbing that, are we, mom?"

    “Don’t be silly Sebastien! Does it look like I have any climbing gear on me?” she rooted around in the rubble at the base. " I know it’s down here somewhere. We’re close."

    We had parked about a mile away, on a dusty road with deep wheel ruts that the Jeep had been just barely able to navigate. I wondered if we would have the same luck going out. From the parking spot,we made our way up a steep slope, past tufts of deer grass and scrawny acacia saplings. Then we followed along the edge of a pebble-lined gulch. When we got to the base of the cliff, mom didn’t stop for a rest.

    “The journal described this place exactly” she said while hunched over, tossing rocks at random “He’s buried right here. I know it."

  35. Oooh, Audrey. I like this. Of course, since it's new, some of the writing is rough, but the descriptions are lovely and specific e.g. the "broad bands of color that seemed to undulate" and "scrawny acacia saplings" and that last bit has me super hooked. Who is buried, and do the kids want to see/discover/know. Glad you played with this piece today!

    Keep going.

  36. What works for me is the ability to instantly connect to those feelings. In middle/high school, I had a boy who I imagined falling in love with and had imaginary conversations with while traveling to and from school, sitting in my bedroom at home, or daydreaming about in class. The line where Grace wonders whether she's the only one who had "commentary constantly running through their head, mostly self-critical" is a truth that I feel so many young people do ask themselves at some time or another. That anxiety

    Does it hook me? Yes. I find myself wanting to know more about Grace and discovering in what other ways I can connect with her.

    Here is my bit…the start of a story inspired by an incident earlier in the week. No clue where it's quite going yet, but my attempt at the first lines…

    "I certainly hope you're not just taking your chances," my mother answered as she sat on the couch, needle in hand, with the old can-can skirt draped over her lap.

    I tried to hide my shock. All of a sudden I realized my mother suspected more than I had ever though. In one second, I had turned from her little girl to a grown adult --- and that was an awkward realization!

    1. Love the absurdity of the "not taking chances" and "old can can skirt". That just made me laugh. But then, the next sentence takes a serious turn. I'm guessing the word "though" is actually thought? What a perfect point to begin a story....the gap between childhood and adult. I have a "wonder" for you. I wonder if this character might use grown-up instead of "grown adult"? And, I would love to see you use the word "Awkward" as a stand alone sentence as tweens/teens say it. What do you think?

  37. Oooh I love the mind racing, conversations so in your head of middle school. Nailed the voice and tone. I liked the first line information but was marred by her name then continuance of speaking. Maybe put her name at the end of that first paragraph.
    I'd love to read more too see how and when a confrontation takes place between these two and who comes out on top. Do they remain friends? Should they?

  38. I love first lines. I am very judgy about those first paragraphs in books I read. My first line began as a poem and is growing into a novel.

    Worries scurry around inside her clothes,crumpling and wrinkling individual folds ravaging and reckoning all the untolds
    of a world spun by whining dreams
    cranked constantly by the evening cacophony.of whispers, coughs and cocaine screams. She is reared by a family of the “shouldn’t bes”
    and neighbors, the “never dos”
    all the hypocrisies of heroin speech
    so much of a child to lose.
    Her hair is matted daily with adult anxieties twisted more tightly with juvenile jeers. She is
    lost somewhere as are all those childhood cares like Barbies and boys, games and toys.

    1. Diane,

      Wow. This is some intense, tightly packed description here.
      What works is the feeling of something moving underneath clothing of being sneaky and searching out what's hidden. As soon as I got to "cocaine screams" my entire mind set this in some sort of crack-house environment.

      We are listening to a narrator who knows this character intimately the inside of her clothes and the intensity of the chaos....and the line that grabs me is "She is reared by a family of shouldn't bes". Might change the "is" to "was" to keep it consistent.....but MORE important there is a juxtaposition to focus in on. I'd like to more about this character. Keep going.

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  41. Diane-
    Thanks for sharing your first lines. I really want to keep reading. I love the word choices especially "ravaging and reckoning". I also love the last line: "She is lost somewhere..." I want to know if anyone is looking for her.
    Here are my first lines:

    The fireworks are exploding all around me. My family looks forward to the Fourth of July fireworks each year. I'm watching but it doesn't feel right. My heart is heavy. I am trying to process all that had occurred the last year.