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In the Beginning: What Makes a Good Beginning?

Before the War . . .

… the evenings lingered longer, and it was always summer when it wasn’t Halloween, or Christmas.

Long, lazy light reached between the houses, and the whole street played hide-and-seek, called only by olly-olly-oxen-in-free and supper time.

Before I could keep up, I rode my brother’s shoulders, hung in the crook of Dad’s good arm. I rode them across the long shadows of afternoon, high over hedges, heading for home base, when our street was the world,

before the war

when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

peck_teacher's funeralThat’s the first page of my next novel.

Or is it? This is only the eighteenth draft, after I started numbering them. It usually takes twenty-four tries to get all the bugs out and all the elements in — to find out where the story starts. But are we making progress?

Does this spare page with plenty of white space strike the right tone of backlit nostalgia? Does it have a voice? Are the main  characters naturally there without being dragged on? Do we see the broad-shouldered older brother? And why does Dad have only one good arm? Do “long, lazy light” and “high over hedges, heading for home base” work, or am I a sucker for  alliteration? Have I conjured a lost world hazed with golden afternoon light before the flat, hard poster-paint red, white, and blue of wartime?

Does it intrigue?

Does it invite?

Does it work?

A few more drafts and we’ll see. I do one final draft of the first chapter after I’ve finished the book and actually know how it ends. After all, the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise. And all the story components have to be there in the beginning,  like Dame Agatha Christie’s clues.

I keep hearing myself say it in writing workshops: “You’re only as good as your opening line.” “Nothing ever gets better than the first line.” “If your young readers don’t like the first line, they’ll never see the second.” “We live in the age of the sound  bite; bite them up front.”

And I believe me. But it’s easier said than done and far too tempting to warm up on your readers’ time. I regularly find my first line somewhere on the sixth page, after five pages of starting too early and walking in circles and pleading with the reader. I’ve learned to pitch those first five out.

Since nobody but a reader ever became a writer, I spend an hour a week in the bookshop, copying out other people’s opening lines. My current favorite begins M. T. Anderson’s Feed:

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

I’m not even jealous. It’s not my kind of writing, so I can admire it with a pure heart, how its jaded, conversational tone pulls the young reader in.

At this end of my career, it’s dawned on me that the craft of writing is very much the search for the perfect opening line. Is  there a perfect opening line? Yes, and I found it, oddly, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

That city’s Calvin College does what every university ought to do. They draw in school kids from their region for a biennial Youth Writing Festival. Calvin College thus identifies promising future freshmen, and the students see its handsome campus.

The English department invited me to meet the young writers. “You’ll have fifth graders and seventh graders, forty-five  minutes for each. Teach them how to write.” This unadorned directive might have come from John Calvin himself.

I was a teacher once, and forty-five minutes is a class period. I know you can introduce only a single concept in that time, so I meant to present the single most crucial aspect of writing, one they’d never have heard from their own teachers.

It was, of course, You Are Only As Good As Your Opening Line. I foresaw the fifth graders and me sitting around a library  table, writing opening lines and then improving them.

There were five hundred fifth graders, restless in stadium seating. There at the top by the girders clung their teachers, asking if they had to stay for the program.

I was heavily lit and miked on a thrust stage, and time was ticking. “YOU ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR OPENING LINE,” I boomed. “You are my readers, but your readers are your teachers. Put something that interests a teacher in the opening line, and you’ll be rewarded by a good grade.”

The multitude took this news calmly. “What interests your teachers?” I asked, echoing.

Five hundred silences. But I persevered. “What interests your teachers?”

After an eternity, a single voice said, “Coffee.”

It was a long forty-five minutes. Then here came the seventh graders, five hundred of them. I repeated my lesson plan, You Are Only As Good…. But when I got to, “What interests your teacher?” there was mutiny in the air, and muttering. These were the puberty people. Teachers aren’t to be entertained. They’re to be brought down. There was some hair-tossing among the girls, and sighing from all sexes.

“What interests a teacher?” I begged.

At last a breaking male voice snarled, “Trouble.”

I fell on it. “Yes! Trouble! Put trouble in your opening line. Not what time you got up that morning, or the weather. Hit them with trouble up front.”

I was thinking of how Francine Prose’s After opens:

Minutes after the shootings, everybody’s cell phone rang.

We got through the Youth Writing Festival, and I claim no converts. But I’d done my own assignment. I’d written the line I thought might most attract my intended readers:

If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.

This won me my first standing ovation from fifth graders.

It was a line crying out for a novel to go with it. The novel became The Teacher’s Funeral. For once, instead of looking high and low for the ideal opener, I had to find the novel that went with it. Of course, I had a notion or two: a one-room schoolhouse, a big sister teaching her little brothers, a snake in the desk drawer, a future you have to earn….

So crucial are the first words of our works that Publishers Weekly’s annual Cuffie awards for children’s books includes a category for Best Opening Line. The 2004 winner was from How I Became a Pirate:

Pirates have green teeth — when they have any teeth at all.

And the winner for the following year? “If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” With ample thanks to Calvin College.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Richard Peck About Richard Peck

Richard Peck’s latest book is Secrets at Sea (Dial), illustrated by Kelly Murphy.

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