It is more important than ever to get your beginnings completely right. Remember, the first word must make the reader want to read the second word (and the first sentence must make the reader want to read the next sentence, and so on with paragraph and chapter). The good news is that the reader will be forgiving of a bad beginning (but the acquiring editor probably won't!)
Must appeal to the reader using psychology: (writer must appeal to these four human traits)
1. Curious: Humans are curious about things that are appealing even though they have nothing to do with our welfare. It is the writer's job to use intrigue and suspense. Raise questions but don't answer all of them.
2. Hedonistic: Humans have pleasure receptacles. Humor, thrill, beauty, voice--writer needs to elicit pleasure (be able to describe the pleasure of eating a piece of cake)
3. Social: Humans are pack animals looking for connection. Writer must make the reader say "I do that, too" or "I feel that, too". You are not trying to show how different you are, but how you are the same.
4. Wired for Story: Humans love the basic structure of story. Writer's job is to be a confidant storyteller from the beginning. Use bravado and go over-the-top ("have I got a story for you . . . ")
When Sara goes back and edits, she makes sure her opening appeals to all of these human traits.
Read the first paragraph of Sara Pennypacker's Clementine and you will see all of these elements illustrated. Lots of "me too" moments for the child reader, and she is subtle in her descriptions so that the reader fills in the blanks and makes the joke--this makes the reader own the book.
Sara recommended reading the annotated version of Charlotte's Web to learn everything there is to learn about writing for children.
The opening has to do a lot of jobs--it must introduce:
*Think of the three most defining characteristics of your character and show one of them at the beginning.
*The flaw is the most important part of your character and you need to show it early on. Sara's Clementine character honestly exposes all her flaws.
*Why do we care about the character?
1) empathize with them
2) connect with them--"me too"
3) have a need to understand why they act the way they do--especially if they are different from you
*Methods for showing character:
2) internal dialogue
5) other's reaction to
9) body language
*Character exercise to try: think of a scenario where a child and an adult both fail each other and have to lie (example--dad says that child can go to baseball game if he finishes school project. Dad has a meeting come up and can't go. Child doesn't finish project) What do they say to each other to evade the truth? The adult will be more adept at lying and the child will be more transparent.
*Try using many different approaches when creating your main character. When Sara creates a character, and she'd take a bullet for him or her--she knows she's ready to begin writing.
*Try showing how the character behaves when he knows he's being watched and when he does not.
*Try showing the character when she's stressed (an eight-year-old can sometimes act like a two-year-old)
2. Conflict / problem: Must be introduced early. What does the main character want most--is this thing symbolic of something kids really want. This want should stand for a universal need--for example, a child really wants a tree house but what they need is an escape or to be alone or a need for control.
*Vogler's book The Writer's Journey outlines the basic structure of story (often all five of these happen at the beginning of a children's story). Sara usually goes back and makes sure to include these elements after she's written a draft.
1) ordinary world
2) call to adventure
3) refusal of call
4) meeting with mentor
5) accepting of call
*two types of setting--physical (actual surroundings--physical description of Harry Potter's home) and emotional (Harry Potter begins in a hostile home)
*Setting is not just background--can be a crucible (characters are ground together and can't get out), a catalyst, or a metaphor for your story
*Setting must be written on a child's scale--try writing from different people's eyes. A child thinks about what he can see or touch right here and now. It is a smaller world that's much more detailed.
*Setting includes all of your senses--glow of lamp, washed blanket, taste of toothpaste. You don't have to say what state you are in--the scale is much smaller!
*To relate to the reader, make sure that a child can relate to your setting. If you're writing about a different country use familiar things that all children can relate to (sleeping with a stuffed animal).
*Setting can be the entire story--emphasize the emotional feel of the place. Remember that sometimes emotional reaction is based on past or present experiences. A child who has never seen the beach before will respond differently from one who has--it depends on where your character is at that moment.
4. Foreshadowing: Sara does this after she's written a draft. She goes back and slides hints back into the story. Sara loves it when the end of the book shakes hands with the beginning. The beginning of the book is a promise, and the rest of the book delivers.
5. Powerful Voice: Dialogue is the most important skill to learn.
1) What they don't say is much more important than what they do
2) When they tell lies, something huge must be at stake (child is usually not good at lying)
3) Get smooth with dialogue and summary (don't give play by play dialogue--say something like "then we talked for hours about cats")
4) "said" is almost all that you need for a tag in a children's book (no "chortled")
5) consider a silent scene before a heavy action scene or a dialogue-packed scene
6) have a character observe a conversation between two other characters (can give great information about what other characters think of main character)
Theme of a book is what does your character want and why (emotional "why")--Sara needs and unfair situation which she writes symbolically. She lets go of the "theme" as soon as she starts writing.
Sara constantly writes and revises--going back to the beginning of her book all the time.
Pacing: To get the story going faster--
*Have another character say "look how you've changed" to show growth
Stephen King says "the story is the boss" and this is more important than any rule.
Sara loves a BIG POW ending:
*try to end with a remarkable or satisfying visual because that is how a child will walk away from the book
*Sara overwrites her ending and then cuts it down
Sara never worries about the language level in a picture book because the child will be sitting on the lap of his dictionary.
Sara writes in the zone and then acts as her own editor at the end of the process.