April 27, 2009

Take My Writers' Challenge

It was a dark and stormy night.

When you read that first sentence, did you imagine Snoopy at his typewriter sitting on his doghouse? You might be surprised to learn that the phrase it was a dark and stormy night wasn’t penned by Charles Schultz, but rather by the English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. That’s right. It’s a phrase and not a sentence. It begins Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

Here is the sentence in its entirety:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Wow! Now, that’s a mouthful of words. We have rain falling in torrents, except at occasional intervals. Then the author interrupts the rain to tell us that the setting is London. After that, the wind rattles along the housetops and the lamp flames struggle against the darkness -- Who cares about the street, the housetops, or the lamp flames? This run-on sentence does nothing to pull readers into the story or even hint at why they should keep on reading.

It was a dark and stormy night is often quoted and sometimes ridiculed. It is the sentence that inspired the English Department of San José State University to create The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual contest in which entrants compete to write the first sentence to the worst of all possible novels, in other words a sentence that is really bad.

So why am I telling you this? Often, I am asked to read a beginning writer’s manuscript. Almost as often, I see inexperienced writers make the same mistake: their first sentences don’t grab the reader’s attention. These sentences either ramble on with little substance, as in the example above, or they are short and uninteresting. I can’t stress enough the importance of forming an engaging opening sentence, especially when writing for children. Powerful first sentences leave readers with a question that can only be answered by moving on to the next sentence, then the next, and all the way to the story’s end. Here are some good examples of first sentences from children’s books.

  • "It was a late Sunday evening and Ratbridge stood silver gray and silent in the moonlight." Here Be Monsters! The Ratbridge Chronicles by Alan Snow
(Who or what is Ratbridge? This sentence beautifully sets the scene without being wordy. Compare it with “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
  • “It was a missing piece.” The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein
(It was a missing piece to what? This is an excellent example of a short yet powerful sentence. )
  • "I've never told this story to anyone because when I was twelve I swore an oath in blood that I would never tell it." Time Bomb by Nigel Hinton
(What is the story, and why was it a secret? Hinton used a common idea to create a first sentence guaranteed to catch his readers’ interest. How many times have you heard a child say, “I have a secret, but I’m not telling”?)
  • "The summer between fifth and sixth grades, something happens to your mind." The Agony of Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
(Gosh, something is going to happen to my mind between fifth and sixth grades? I have to know what that is. Do I want it to happen to me? This well crafted sentence creates a personal connection with readers.)

I’ve offered my opinions on first sentences, and I’ve provided you with some examples. Now, I’m taking things one step further. I’m challenging you to write the best first sentence you can think of for a children’s book. The blog is open for comments. Post a first sentence that is so utterly irresistible that we can’t wait to know the rest of the story. Come on. I dare you. Start writing.

April 16, 2009

Never Give Up

Self esteem. It’s a struggling author’s enemy. With each rejection slip comes the thought: Maybe I’m just not good enough.

Here’s your writing prompt for today. Look at this picture. Put aside what you may already know about it, and write one paragraph to describe what you see.

Now, click on the link below. The next seven and a half minutes are worth your time. They will prove to you that you should never give up on yourself, as a writer or otherwise.

Dreams Do Come True

Susan Boyle’s dream was to be a professional singer. When asked, “Why hasn’t it worked out so far?” she answered matter-of-factly, “I haven’t been given the chance before, but here’s hoping that it’ll change.” Susan Boyle didn’t stuff her dream into the back of a dark closet. She'd held onto it for 35 years. She kept on singing, hoping, and believing that someday her dream would become a reality.

Writers shouldn't give up on their dreams either, especially when rejection slips are stacked on their kitchen tables. If Susan Boyle isn’t enough inspiration, then here’s a list of ten best-selling books that were repeatedly rejected by publishers.

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis – 15 rejections
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – 18
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield – 140
And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss –27

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl – 20
M*A*S*H* by Richard Hooker – 21
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 38
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – 26

Carrie by Stephen King – 30
The Call of the Wild by Jack London – 60

All of these authors swept away the criticism that threatened their self-esteem, and they kept hoping. With each written proposal and with every manuscript dropped into the mailbox, they whispered, “I haven’t been given the chance before, but here’s hoping that it’ll change.”

There’s a lesson for all of us in the story of Susan Boyle. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Beyond its title lies someone’s dream, someone’s hope that if they just keep trying, someday success will come. Susan Boyle took the risk. She bravely walked out in front of a room filled with people, most of them laughing and rejecting her on sight, because she believed that she had talent. It was only a matter of time before the world believed it, too. Like Susan Boyle, the lesson is plain: Keep hoping that you will be given the chance. Never, ever, give up on your dream.

Boyle is the youngest of nine children and lives in Blackburn with her ten-year-old cat, Pebbles. Boyle suffered oxygen deprivation during birth, resulting in learning disabilities. Her classmates teased her because of this and because of her appearance. She stopped her pursuit of singing to look after her sick mother who died in 2007, at the age of 91. Her performance on Britain’s Got Talent was the first time Boyle had sung after her mother's death. She is unmarried and presently unemployed. She aspires to become a musical theatre singer.

April 1, 2009

Humor is a Serious Thing!

It’s April, the month that begins with all forms of foolishness.

Writing humor is hard for those of us who write “straight” text for a living. When we’re told to let our hair down and have fun, we sit at our computers distressed.

Last month, columnists across America agonized over their annual April Fools Day columns. Some put pencil to paper and found it pointless. Newspaper editors brainstormed visual puns to use on their front pages only to discover that the mere idea of a visual pun made their photographers shutter. By March 31st, many journalists continued to struggle with their humorous ideas. They worked 24 hours straight, scrambling to put the finishing touches on their April Fools Day pranks, before calling it a day.

Visual puns can be a knightmare for photographers.

Our local newspaper used to run an April Fools Day story on the front page. One year, the Loch Ness Monster was lurking in our small-boat harbor on Lake Michigan. Another year, the paper reported that the president was visiting friends in town, and the Secret Service had blocked off an entire neighborhood. Our paper’s last April Fools Day story was about a jumbo jet making an emergency landing in a local park. It caused such a traffic jam that the paper’s editor decided to stop the annual prank. Too many people took the stories literally. Where was their sense of humor!

On April Fools Day, and every day, newspapers provide great inspiration for writing humor. When I’m looking for amusing ideas and characters, I never miss reading my paper.

Take the police reports, for example. There’s always something interesting there. Today, I read that officers were called to a daycare center where a three-year-old was resisting a rest. Another item reported that an APB was sent out to officers to apprehend a short fortune-teller who escaped from our local jail. The description of her was sketchy. It said only that she was a small medium at large. Wouldn’t she make a terrific main character for a humorous story?

Even bad news can provide an idea for a funny story. Recently, I read in the paper that there was a guy who was fired from an orange juice factory because he had a problem concentrating on his job. Then, there was a story about an optician who fell into the lens-grinding machine and made a spectacle of himself. I even found a tiny article next to the obituaries that said the woman who fell into the upholstery machine last week, and was left for dead, is fully recovered. Wouldn’t any of these be a great starting point for a humorous tale?

Even bad news can provide ideas for a funny story, like this: a-salted peanut.

I love browsing the newspaper for bits and pieces of odd information to use in my writing. Trivia is a great starting point for writing humor. For example, I was interested to learn that when fish are in schools they sometimes take debate. I was also excited to find out that ancient orators often tended to Babylon. I was even more excited when our newspaper devoted more space to its astronomy column. Some of the strange and outrageous trivia in that column led me to see the sun in a whole new light. Yes, indeed! Newspapers provide great inspiration for humor.

With all the inspiration that newspapers can provide, there will always be some writers who just cannot write anything funny—not on April Fools Day, or any other day. I just read about a writer who sent ten puns to her friends with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did. Like I said, writing humor is hard.

As the old saying goes: Time flies like an arrow, and fruit flies like a banana. It’s time to end this post. Happy Easter to all. Happy Spring!

If you enjoyed the puns in this month’s post
you’ll love Richard Lederer’s
Get Thee to a Punnery.

Writing wasn’t my first career choice. I used to be a tap dancer until I fell in the sink.