A veteran children’s book author offered candid insight into the writing process during a workshop called “You Are Only as Good as Your Opening Line,” held June 10 at the Anthroposophical Society in New York City. Richard Peck, who received a 1999 Newbery Honor for A Long Way from Chicago and won the 2001 Newbery Medal for A Year Down Under, spoke to a crowd of writers about voice, character, and crafting first lines that capture the soul of a piece of children’s literature.
Despite the accolades awarded over the course of his career, Peck said that he, like so many, experiences writer’s block: “If I knew how to write the novel I’m writing now, I’d be home writing it. I’m here because I’m hiding from a manuscript – just like you are,” he joked.
Self-deprecation aside, diligence, patience, and dedication are keystones of Peck’s creative process: he writes each novel six times on his electric typewriter and, he said, “after I find out how it ends, I write the first chapter that really belongs with the story.” Establishing a character’s voice from the very first line of the book, he stated, is a must.
By way of example, Peck turned to the opening passage of Huckleberry Finn, explaining how, when novelists write, “we write in the voices of characters. This is not Mark Twain’s voice.”
He then read the opening sequence of Charlotte’s Web, which contains one of his favorite first lines of all time: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Both passages spoke to Peck’s larger points about where, when, and how a story should begin: “We have to be very clear about where our stories are set, but we don’t start with setting.” He held up the Twain and White novels as paragons of what he believes great children’s literature should do: “We are writing survival manuals for people who aren’t sure they will.”
Along the way, he said, there are pesky details like plot – “a coherent shape to offset chaos in a reader’s life” –and the often arduous process of crafting riveting sentences that serve the ultimate purpose of the characters and story that they embody.
Peck, who spends an hour each week perusing bookstores and inspecting first lines of books, believes that a “story must be going on before you start,” and must shoot off like “a grenade with the pin already pulled.” He shared numerous openings from contemporary YA novels, including Francine Prose’s After, which begins “after gunfire, not with gunfire”; M.T. Anderson’s Feed; and Tracy Holczer’s The Secret Hum of a Daisy.
There is no manual, Peck said, by which to write a particular novel, but he did supply the audience with a “10-point first impressions checklist,” and invited the audience to compare their opening lines against it. Among the criteria on his checklist: Is the first sentence a line and a half long at the most? If it’s not written in first-person, why not? How are adult characters kept off the page and off the stage? Where are the unnecessary 20 words? Is there a good reason to turn the page?
After his talk, attendees shared the opening lines of their works in progress, which might have been an intimidating prospect were it not for Peck’s grace, humor, and warmth. With great finesse, the author suggested which words to cut, which to shuffle, and where, exactly, the language loses its authority. In other cases, he urged the writer to take a step back and allow the words to germinate for a while; perhaps the opening lines of the book were not there to be found yet.
The resounding message Peck provided to the audience: it’s through the process of rewriting and reshaping that authors arrive at their characters’ epiphanies, as well as their own: “Where’d we get the idea that we have to get it right the first time?” Peck wondered aloud. In other words: go home, write, rewrite, repeat.