What is the role of the opening line? How does an author know which character should narrate a story? Those are questions that the prolific Newbury-winning author, Richard Peck, addressed at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. What follows are the highlights of his presentations, based on notes taken by myself and a writing critique partner. If you ever have opportunity to hear this young adult author from Illinois, I highly encourage you to soak up his advice.
Peck started his first presentation by informing us that this is a workshop. He handed out two sheets and told listeners that we’ll work on two things, finding a start and finding a voice. The one sheet contained a list of Peck’s ten favorite opening lines. The second sheet contained the first page of a popular novel with the assignment to find an alternative opening line.
Once upon a time, Peck received an invitation to speak at Calvin College. From that experience, he produced a novel. Having only forty-five minutes to teach students how to write a novel, Peck decided to talk what’s most important for an author. “You’re only as good as your opening line. If readers don’t like the first line, they won’t like the book.”
Peck pictured working with a small group, but ended up instead with 500 fifth-grade students, with teachers at the front who had already asked to be dismissed. His heart sunk, but he plunged ahead, “You are only as good as your opening line. Put something in your first sentence that interests your teacher.” Silence. The students hadn’t ever thought about trying to interest a teacher. After all, teachers are paid for their job. Someone finally called out, “Coffee.” In his afternoon session, there were 500 seventh-graders. A guy finally yelled, “Trouble.”
As for Peck, his opening line was: “If your teacher has to die, August isn’t the bad time of year for it.” This line gave him his first standing ovation. Then he had to write a novel to go with it. The Teacher’s Funeral not only got written, but it won the Christopher Medal from a Roman Catholic school.
Peck shared that he’s a collector of opening lines. He spends an hour in the bookstore every week copying lines from published books. Nowadays, Peck cautions, you have to be your own editor. The best most recent opening line in his opinion came from Carmen Deedy, “He was the best of Toms, the worst of Toms.” Peck goes on to advise: Never start with sappy. Start with a young person and something active. If mother has to be on the front page at all, make sure she is bad. J If you’re writing for young people, you’re writing for a world that they’re trying to reach outside of adults. Also, never mind writing about a shooting, but pay attention instead to what happens after it. Establish voice, by eliminating yourself and writing how your character would. Most importantly, grab readers with the first line.
Next, Peck talked about his own writing process. He begins a novel as if he were reading it, not writing it. On that first day, he writes a page, then rewrites it until he can’t read that page, and finally types it all over again. Then he finds three more changes. When he gets the page exactly the way he wants, he takes out one word. We all overwrite. Why? According to Peck, none of us are confident that we’re getting across the message. So we talk more. We should write less.
By page 40, if the narrator isn’t coming with ideas Peck never had, he gets rid of the narrator. It’s a casting call, one which he never initially does right. He’s now used to it. He has to use the wrong character to get to the right one.
Fifteen months, he writes. When done, he throws away the first chapter without looking at it. Then he writes the first chapter with the knowledge of what will happen. It’s helpful to outline the whole novel on the first page. Does that happen when you first write? No. Peck often goes back and lays out clues that he didn’t have when he first wrote the book. The first page is the table of contents. It just doesn’t look like it. When one looks at the first line, it’s an embarrassing one. He might have to flip through the entire book to find the best way to start.
You’re only as good as your first line. And no one ever has a good enough to start. That of course means everyone has to rewrite.
A fourth-grade teacher once gave Peck a book and told him, “You might want to try this.” The minute Peck met the characters of Huckleberry Finn, he knew he wanted to write. “Children’s lives are often changed by a teacher–working off of the syllabus, not teaching to a standardized test.”
After sharing this story, Peck talked about cover art. Packaging shapes a story and authors often lose readers due to the cover art. If you ask an author why they allowed a certain cover, Peck said, you might even get a sermon. Sometimes authors do have influence. When Peck got asked about the cover for his recent mouse book, he immediately asked for British uniforms because those are the best. The cover art won a prize. But Peck doesn’t always get a choice. Peck disliked the choice of cover art for The River Between Us, because this novel focuses on a civil war soldier but the cover art was of a southern girl. Most boys won’t read a book with a girl on the cover. Peck suggested that teachers send students to the library to analyze the cover.
Next, Peck turned again to the writing process. A story actually begins before the opening line. In other words, there’s always something that comes before that shapes our characters “We never write in our own voices because we couldn’t get that stuff published.” Indeed, writing is a great escape, where we get to create characters and pretend to be another person.
For The River Between Us, Richard Peck found part of the story in the New Orleans Historical Society. He took 500 pages of notes for over two years before finding the voices. He found the voices for his characters in historical letters, reading books from that time period and from the songs of that time. “You talk yourself back, back, back, until you are there and you hear their voices.”
Sometimes when you begin a book, you don’t have the right character telling the story. For Peck’s first book, Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, he started writing with the voice of one character but she “clammed up” and couldn’t tell her own story because it was too personal. He tried a different main character, but it was too emotional. Finally, he found a voice in the younger sister. “It’s not the story; it’s who tells it.” Give yourself permission to get rid of characters that aren’t working.
Always write in the voice of the character. That means in the first person. Authors want a character who can stand closer to the reader than an author can. You can’t get that from third person.
No one ever told Peck as a student to write in first person. Instead teachers advised him to always justify everything you write. That also made a novelist out of him. All writing is research. A novel is a document too.
For teachers, Peck said students should be encouraged to write from the viewpoints of others, not in their own voice. Students don’t have enough experience to write from their own voice. The one person they really don’t know is themselves. People think fiction is real life with the names changed. It is really an alternative universe. Children need to be writing more fiction.
Although Peck left teaching to become a writer, he asserts that his attendance book was his first work of fiction. Teaching gave him characters and voices before becoming a writer. “You’re never ready to write until you find the readers you want to write for.”
I come from New York, the publishing capital. I come bearing bad news. New York doesn’t know where Nebraska is. Rainbow Rowell, Loreen Eisley, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mari Sandoz, Willa Cather. Everyone owes a debt to Willa Cather. May every son and daughter know these authors….
More often than not, the luncheon speaker at Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival will speak about the state of education and of books in our modern world. Peck was no exception. In his opinion, story must come first. Most of what we are comes from those first five years. If schools fail to educate, it is because children have already been failed before they came to school.
Moreover, Peck contends, reading books is the last family pact. It’s the best defense against the digital dystopia that young people will create with the electronics given to them from parents. We believe in nothing unless it’s written down.
Story must come first. History repeats itself. Story is not a substitute for history. But history repeats in story too. Peck fell in love with history from novels like Red Badge of Courage and Gone with the Wind. We owe young people the geography of story.
Peck believes that we need story as a remedy against the standardized test. The latter will not work, because it can’t reform the home lives of students. Tests are devised by those who are far removed from education. Politics is the enemy of education.
There is no time to read. Phones are never switched off. Computers glow late into the night. There is no patience for the hyperactive child.
After this opening, Peck shares some of his own life story as proof. He came to writing late in life, not until age 37. But he also feels better prepared than today’s youth. His mom read to him. She filled him up with words. He’s a writer because of her. She wouldn’t let him be hyperactive. 😉
Like most writers, he also owes his career to a teacher. Miss Thelma Franklin taught senior English to college bound. Peck had gotten used to receiving A’s. She didn’t give me an A but just wrote, “Never express yourself again on my time. Find a more interesting topic.” Peck was seventeen. He wondered, “What could be more interesting than me?” Anything, his teacher told him. He went to the library. He still goes there.
A story is always about something that never happened to the author, Peck advises. Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit. JK Rowling did not attend Hogwarts. Gary Paulson was never dropped into the Great American Woods without an axe. Instead the Great American Woods is a metaphor for middle school. Everyone writes out of research. No one ever came a writer without being a reader. We don’t write what we know, Peck contends, but what we can find out. “If I limited to what I knew, I would have just one haiku. The River Between Us took years to gather information. Someone asked him if he wrote from the novel from his own experience. “I had been talking about the Civil War. I don’t remember the Civil War.”
To end his luncheon presentation, Peck confessed, “I’m about to break the writer’s rule. Don’t tell them about your next book. Or the one they can’t buy today. My next one will be out in a year. I just finished writing the jacket flap for it…. I hope my story is about love, loss, family, and not political. History occurs even when it’s not happening at school.”