Tag Archives: Richard Peck

Sketchbook Summer (and Writing?)

Over on Facebook, my friend Matthew S Armstrong is challenging artists to draw every day for one month. All this month of July! Fill a sketchbook!


My youngest is doing this. So far, so good. She shows me each evening.

This month of July I want to–again–write one first line of a new book everyday. Five minutes to do it. Great opening lines. If it takes less than five minutes, I can write line 2, 3, 4. But it can’t take longer. Five minutes to get something new on the page, daily.

Remember Richard Peck? You’re no better than your first line? That opening is a key. The entryway.

As I have done this first line on a new novel before (three minutes to write them then!), I’ve found I need a few moments to think. Think about what I might want this book to be, otherwise I can’t do it. Not for 30 days straight. I don’t often start an idea with a line of writing.

I read somewhere that the opening line of a book should have voice, a little bit of mystery and character in it. Can you do that with each start?

That opening is also a promise of what is to come. It’s exciting!

So join in. With Matthew or me or both of us.


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The Death Penalty-Pros and Cons

Sometimes we have characters in our novels that just aren’t doing anything to move the plot along.

Perhaps we like this character and so we mold and shape him. We give him the correct lines, witty banter. We even make him wowzers handsome.

Here’s the truth of it.

That guy’s gotta go.

If he ain’t pulling his weight, no matter how dynamic he is, you gotta get rid of him.

# 38

Look at the earlier writing prompt where you drew a circle, with your main character in the middle. All those lines lead to characters in the novel. Are they all important? Can you do without a few? Are there any people not doing their duty?

Every person who shows up in a book must DO something. No talking heads. No mannequins (unless you are Richard Peck writing SECRETS OF THE SHOPPING MALL. Mannequins WERE used in that story.)

So, get rid of all those who are weighing down the story.

And if they are super cool? Use them in another book.


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# 24

Write 25 first lines for your novel.

Jot them down quickly (you already have a first line, and you’re working on a book, so you know where you’re going–this will be an easy exercise), a minute or less per line.

That first line is a promise to your reader. It can show voice, hint at character and plot, show mood and it certainly should grab the reader.

So what are you doing with YOUR book opening?

Remember, Richard Peck (LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, A YEAR DOWN YONDER) says, “You are no better than your first line.”

Once Richard read the first few pages of my novel that is under consideration right now. “You don’t have your best first line,” he said. He was right. I chopped off the first paragraph AND learned a valuable lesson from a great writer.

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Threee Thingss Thursdayy

Herb and I survived WIFYR, the week-LONG marathon of learning how to improve our writing 10 hours (and more) a day. We’d both been struggling a bit with opening chapters and, as a parting shot, Carol gave Herb an extra assignment: Read the first chapter of 50 books. Read them as a writer, noting what happens, when and how throughout. Then post “reports” on what you found out in each one. I was in a different class, but I thought Carol’s idea was an excellent way to figure out what I was doing wrong in my first chapter. I made a template, of sorts, for myself: the things I should look for or notice in each chapter read.
Here’s the list from my template — please feel free to add items you think might be helpful and post them here for all of us.
1.  Title
2.  Author
3.  World (as shown in chapter)
4.  Main Character  (MC) – how s/he is introduced
5.  What the MC wants
6.  The MC’s main problem (in getting it, or in life)
7.  Introduction of other characters
8.  Plot development (as revealed in just this chapter)
9.  Opening (what we find out in the first few paragraphs and how it’s working — or not)
I also added a few quoted sentences which showed the tension, the created world, and a couple of the outstanding characters. By the time I’ve read 50 chapters like this, those sentences will also be a solid reminder of that specific book.


I just watched The Great Gatsby again and I’m wondering  what makes it a classic. It’s not the writing, at least not for me. There are a few brilliant lines in it, but overall, it feels too flowery. The characters aren’t likable either. Each are burdened with flaws that can’t be vindicated. 

I think the genius lies in the fantasy it provides. Everyone can relate to longing for The One Who Got Away. It’s such a romantic idea, to think that someone has been pining for you from afar. And on the other side, we have the quintessential American Dream. A young boy, dirt poor, who managed to rise up to be the greatest and the richest of them all.
And then there is the debate about soulmates. The definition of bravery. The concept of honor. Is it possible, after all, to rectify a mistake made in the past?
What do you think makes it a classic?
Off to ALA tomorrow.
Going with my little Caitlynne.
Signings on Saturday: at the Zondervan/ HC booth at 10 am and at S&S at 3 pm. Come see me if you’re there.
I won’t be able to write tomorrow  as we’re leaving early in the AM. So here’s a FRIDAY exercise for everyone:
Get a cheap spiral notebook to keep your writing facts in. Save it always. Keep it near so you can add to it, like Brenda has. Ann Dee and I will work with you and this notebook the rest of the year, on Fridays.
To start–begin a collection of first lines and first paragraphs of novels. Write them into your notebook. Add title and author.
Analyze WHY these work or don’t.
How do you feel about the first line? The opening?
Do they fulfill a promise (you know this if you’re rereading)?
Do the first lines grab you?
What’s the tone from just that opening?
Are there wasted words?
Do you know what the book is about? How?
Why did an editor pick up this novel?
Is it successful?
Do this for the rest of the year. Analyze beginnings and why they succeed or don’t.
Remember Richard Peck said you are no better than your first line.
And Heather Flaherty, The Bent Agency, said she gives books three sentences.


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Ten Minutes for Beginnings

Running a blog for years–a blog about writing–well, one begins to wonder what one should write about.

Okay–that’s the line I started with. Then I thought–what am I going to say today? What’s new out there?

Probably nothing, actually. But as I sat here I remembered something Richard Peck said years ago when he was here in UT. He was talking to a group of writers and teachers. His bit of wisdom that I’ve repeated in every writing class I’ve taught since? “You are no better than your first line.”

That means for anything, I think. The first line of a campaign speech, of a novel, of a poem, newspaper, article, essay, picture book. Your blog.

“Your novel,” Richard Peck told us that day, “may start chapters in. Find the right beginning.”

“Start your novel where the story starts,” I tell my students. On the day something new happens. Don’t waste time with back story.

Get in and get on with it. Grab your reader and run.

“My book gets great right about page 40,” people will tell me. (And yes. That’s about the number they all say). Common sense tells us that means the story starts on page forty. Someone has some work to do.

While Richard was here, he looked at the first three pages of a novel I’d begun. He asked me two questions, one of which was, “Does this start in the right place?”

I dropped him off at the airport that day and as I drove away I realized he was right about the book. I’d started wrong. I chopped off the first line–a bit of Florida description, I think–and the book began right where it needed to.

“What you doing, Girl?” Daddy said, when the burying was done.

Introduction of two characters, a bit of voice and a problem. Buried because of an extra line. Exposed, front and center when the first line was chopped away.

A great first line won’t save a bad novel. But it can set you up as a writer and point you where you need to go. It can offer a feeling of what you may now do. It can be a promise to the reader.

I’ve not sold this book and it’s been years. There have been two editors interested. And now another editor is looking at that novel. But I learned something from Richard that I’ve tried to use in every book since–get rid of what isn’t needed. Quit meandering.

Write the story and only the story. Readers just don’t care about the rest.

So in this blog? Cut off the first 50 or so words. That’s where this piece really begins.

Now go do that to your books.


Filed under CLW, Exercises, First Line, Voice

Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!

Okay everyone–already we have had had quite a few submissions for Project Writeway. In fact, I had just posted a note on Ann Dee’s write up of the contest and two people submitted.

So, here’s what I have to say.
You can only enter the contest one time per challenge, so take your time.
Read through what you have.
Ask yourself these questions–
Is this beginning THE very best you have ever written?
Could this be tweaked?
Are you so close to your work that you don’t see the flaws?
Could someone give your contest submission a quick read-through?
Are you wasting words? Not using enough words? Are you trying to do too much? Are you writing the opening too slowly or too quickly as far as pacing goes?

Once, a million years ago, Richard Peck spoke here in Utah. And I was his driver and got to talk to him. I was in heaven. It was great spending time with one of my favorite writers.
Anyway, when he spoke to a packed audience he said (and this is from memory from a million years ago), “You’re no better than your first line.”
Of course he meant was we need to start with a line that grabs the reader.

At one point, Richard looked at two pages of an unpublished middle grade novel I’d written. “I like so much of this,” he said, “but this isn’t your best first line.”
I took the piece home and realized that the best line was just one or two sentences down. I chopped away that first line or two and then I had it, a great first line, hidden in the words.

Richard said a lot of terrific things that day to me and during his speeches. But what I came away with (and this has evolved over the years since his visit as I have written and rewritten and rerewritten and rererewritten and . . .) is that every word is important.

Many of today’s books would tell you differently, that only story matters.
And maybe if publication at all costs is your desire, that’s true for you.
But I think that writing is more than that. It’s the perfect start, the best word choice and a strong story line.
It’s writing and rewriting and rerewriting and rererewriting and . . .

Take your time during this contest.
Put your best work forward.
Make every word count.
And, most of all, have fun!

PS Even if you are eliminated, continue to Play at Home (we’ll tell you how). There’s a prize for the Play at Home winner, too!
Plus a few give-aways.
And schtuff!
Yippee ti yi yo!


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Three Things and More Critique Suggestions

One: So this is true. I had to have Rick Walton come over and babysit for me the other night. (Party here. Couldn’t leave the kids alone.) Anyway, Rick was here only 30 minutes but he managed to make it over to my computer and USE it!
“I can’t believe you have so many things on your desk top,” he said. “Haven’t you ever heard of folders?” This was an odd question from a guy who got on my computer without asking. He’s probably taken all my picture book ideas. Oh wait, I don’t write picture books.

And yes, I have heard of folders, but I always seem to lose things I put in folders.

Two: I found this book at a garage sale a while back. It’s one I read when I was a kid called THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. When I finished reading the novel I flipped to the back of the book and I found this list:

Lengthen stirrups
sit up straight
Look up
sit down in saddle
head is cocked
right arm, let hang
straighten shoulders

I like the Look Up suggestion best of all. It just seems kind of smart.
PS–The second time I rode a horse, I fell off mid-gallop. This was a good horse. It didn’t trample my guts out and I was thankful for that.

Three: The First Annual Teen Book Festival was pretty darn good. Scott Westerfeld  spoke at the Provo City Library and his speech was great. I learned some cool things. Later, I emailed AE Cannon about them.

Now on to the questions to ask yourself while revising! Woot! Woot!

31. Do you know the rules before you break the rules? That spy Rick Walton is ALWAYS breaking rules–like going through someone’s computer–especially when he’s writing. If editors say don’t write in rhyme, he does and he sells the book. If they say don’t write an ABC book or a Numbers book, he does and sells them. If editors say, No talking animals Rick writes a book with talking animals and sells it. Rick knows the rules about writing picture books. He knows them so well–he knows why they are there– he can (and this is from his own mouth, I’m on the phone with him now) find exceptions–“Knowing the rules and why they are there means you can find the exceptions to the rules and use those in your writing ‘cause that’s where innovation comes.”

32. Watch tags—are they invisible to the reader? The he said and she said of writing–the tags or identifiers–should almost always (meaning 98.2 %) be said or asked. When you reach outside the tag box you jar the reader from the story. “Put that bun away,” he bellowed. Add an ‘ly’ word to it and it becomes even worse. “Put that bun away,” he bellowed violently. You can rewrite such a tag, show how the bellower is acting and make a stronger sentence that leaves the reader firmly in the story (she bellowed. Violently.).

33. Is dialog strong and real? Let’s answer this question with a question–Would your character say what she’s saying, or are you–the old person, putting in what YOU would say?

34. Does your character suddenly do something that s/he would never do? Your character may do something unexpected–but if it is completely out of character for your character, then you need to look at the motivation to see if what the character does is supported. If, all along, your main character would never speak above a whisper, and then he screams at the top of his lungs, we need to see the growth the character has made to make him act so.

35. Are you writing what you know (either because you truly know it or because you have researched the subject)? Randall Wright also says to write what you love. I believe writing what you know makes you an expert and that means the feelings and story will ring true.

36. Watch the words it, very, started, well, that. Those words can almost ALWAYS be thrown away. I’m just saying. There are more words like this but I can’t remember them.

37. Is your story realistic within the frame of what you are writing? Just like your character cannot do something he would not do, so must your story stay true to itself. If your world is a contemporary story, and you have gotten to the end and can’t think what to do so you drop a bunch of bombs on the city to end things, well that is unexpected and  only works if you have foreshadowed such an event might happen.

38. How long does it take for your story to start? Some authors say start with action. Richard Peck says don’t start with scenery. Whatever you start with, make sure it’s INTERESTING so you grab your reader. And make sure you start at the TRUE BEGINNING of the story. If you find yourself jumping into a flashback very soon after the start of the story, you probably have not begun in the right place.

39. Is your main character flawed or perfect? Sometimes we tend to make the bad people REALLY bad and the good people way too good. There is no completely perfect human and there is no completely evil human. There are good and bad things to everyone. Remember that when you write. It will add dimension to your characters.

40. Are you introducing too many people at once? Too many characters that enter a scene all at once means the reader may have a hard time keeping them separated. It’s like walking into a room and meeting 23 people all wearing black and white, with no distinguishing characteristics. They seem the same. When you introduce fewer characters then you have time to make them distinct.

JUST TEN MORE and WE’RE DONE! Next week is the end of revision suggestions. There will be a quiz.  I hope these suggestions help you once you finish your NaNoWriMo experience and you sit down to start rewriting.

Good luck to all who undertake the 30 days/50,000 words writing marathon.

And for those who want a writing exercise–here’s one:

Look at OUT OF THE DUST or CRANK or ONE OF THOSE HIDEOUS BOOKS WHERE THE MOTHER DIES. Now take a bit of your own work and put it in this style of writing. You will have fewer words to work with. Tighten, throw away, put just the right word on the page. What does this do for your writing?

Here’s another writing exercise.

Using the list of words I found in the back of CATCHER IN THE RYE, write a 250 + word piece (that is not about riding a horse).


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