Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday's Fare: First Impressions

Do you remember when you were a kid and your mother used to say, "You only have one chance to make a first impression"? Like it or not, that holds true today in our writing more than anything else. Especially for those of us who write for kids and teens, nothing is more important than that first sentence, paragraph, and page. If we don't capture their interest immediately, they won't continue reading and the book goes back to the library or on their bookshelf where it will gather cute little dust bunnies for the next decade.

So how do you start that first page? What makes a first sentence exciting? How many of you have read Charlotte's Web?
                     "Mama, where's Papa going with that ax?"
Now there's a first sentence to grab you by the throat ! Many writers do begin their novels with dialogue,  but it has to be something that is startling, humorous, frightening, or in some other way grabs the attention of the reader and doesn't let go. For example:
                      First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things.
                      Or at least, how I try.
                                   HERE IS A SMALL FACT.
                                       You are going to die.

Okay, not just a single sentence, but this is how The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak,
begins. Now wouldn't that hold you interest, and make you continue reading? It sure did me !

                               Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.

A half-blood? A half-blood of what or who? The first line of The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan.  A few sentences down, Riordan goes on to say that ...being a half-blood is dangerous, it could get you killed. (Paraphrasing here.) That will get any kid's attention, right?

I'm going to give you the first sentence of an adult book by Virginia Woolf, and tell you what that sentence says to me. Compare my thoughts with what you may have thought about it.
                    Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Here is what the sentence says to me:
1. Question: who is Mrs. Dalloway, and who is she buying flowers for?
2. It tells me that buying flowers herself is not the usual way she does things, so there must be some special reason for her to do it now. I wonder what that reason is?
3. The sentence indicates someone is talking about Mrs. Dalloway to someone else. Who, and why? It's almost as though Mrs.Dalloway has servants, one of whom usually buys her flowers, so that servant is talking to another one because it is unusual for Mrs. D to buy her own flowers . ( May or may not be true.)
4. I get the feeling that there is something mysterious or very different about this simple act of buying flowers, and it makes me want to read on, and find out why Mrs.Dalloway is doing what she's doing.

Did any of the above thoughts occur to you? think about it, and decide why or why not.

Here are some ideas about things to look for and think about in writing your first sentence ( or 2 or 3), always keeping in mind the age of the children or teens you're writing for:

1. Will the make the reader ask questions that can only be answered by reading further?
2. Does it give the impression that something mysterious, or exciting, or dangerous, or very funny is going to happen in the coming pages? 
3. Does that first sentence ( or 2 or 3) hint at some kind of goal to be accomplished or conflict to be overcome in future pages?
4. Do you believe your reader will find an immediate emotional connection to your character, or be fascinated by the scene or bits of dialogue you've created?

Now I'm going to give you some first sentences, not all of which come from published novels... some you will recognize, some you may not. Read each one separately, and think about it for a minute. Then ask yourself the above questions, and see if any apply to your feelings about the sentence. If they do, write out the sentence, and then write what you think or feel about it. Keep it for reference when you write your next first sentence, or revise the ones you have now.

1.  Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know.
2.  This is what happened.
3.  I don't know why she thought the plan was hers. It wasn't. It couldn't have been.
4.  I am invisible. I am flesh and blood, but I am invisible. People see right through me; they walk right past me. They don't hear me crying.
5.  Murder never sends out a calling card, so why was it different this time?

I hope you have fun with this, but also, that it helps some in writing those all important "first" sentences...or 2 or 3!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday's Wanderings: Dog Days of Summer

It's hot! Temperatures are rising all over the country, including here on the Pacific Coast. Our Mid-State Fair begins today, and historically, that's when our temps begin to reach 100 plus degrees.

The Dog Days of Summer...have you ever wondered where this name came from, and what exactly it means? I have, so I did some research and this is what I found:

In Webster's Dictionary, "dog days" are define as the period between early July and early September when the hottest and most sultry temperatures of summer occur in the Northern Hemisphere.  But what does the term really mean and where does it come from?

Long ago, in the ancient times where the beauty of the night skies was not obliterated by artificial lights and smog, the stars were at their brightest. Ancient peoples in different lands drew pictures in the sky by connecting the stars with dots, which is how our present day constellations were born. These pictures, however, were dependent upon the cultures, as each society saw the stars and the images they created differently. The Native Americans saw one picture, the Chinese saw another, the Europeans still another, and so on.

The images they created were of bears, (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor), twins, ( Gemini), a bull, (Taurus), and of course, many others including DOGs ( Canis Major and Canis Minor.)

The brightest of all these stars in the night sky is Sirius, also the brightest in the constellation of Canis Major. Sirius is called The Dog Star.  It is so bright that the Ancient Romans thought the earth derived its heat from this star, but of course we've learned through time that this isn't the case.

Anyway, how did the Dog Star come to be associated with the term "Dog days of summer?"  Well, in July this star rises and sets with the sun, and the ancients believed that because it was so bright, during this period of time it added its own heat to the sun, resulting in the hottest and most sultry period of time on earth. So they called this period time, from 20 days before this conjunction to 20 days after, the "Dog Days of Summer." This usually means the Dog Days of Summer range from July 3rd to August 11th.

So this is your astronomical/historical "lesson" in what the Dog Days of summer are, and how they got their name !  But more do these days affect you? Are you more tired during this period of time? Cranky and crotchety? How does your writing go during this time, do you write more, less?  Do you think your creativity sort of "shrinks" up in the heat?

I hate summer! For me, it's a period of sheer isolation. I don't handle the heat at all, so when it's so hot and humid, I hibernate in the house with the a/c on.  Unfortunately, I'm also claustophobic, so being in the house with all the doors and windows closed will drive me up a wall after a while. Consequently, my creativity takes a holiday, but it doesn't take me with it !

How do you handle the Dog Days of Summer?

Until next time,
That's a wrap.