Mentor Texts for Writers: How to Unstick Your Opening Line by Marcie Colleen

Marcie Colleen and I not only share a first name (spelled the same way and everything), but we also share a love of picture books and mentor texts. When I do presentations about mentor texts for teachers or writers, I always tell them, you must not just study the mentors, you have to use the techniques you learn. Marcie talks about that very thing in this very post! Now go forth and rewrite your first line. 


Mentor Texts for Writers 2015 image for blog

So you have a bang-up idea for a picture book.

Your concept is gold.

Your characters are charming—yet flawed in a loveable sort of way.

Your plot beautifully flows, building page-turning tension along the way to a resolution that just sings.

You fire up the ol’ computer, open a crisp new document and…

stare

dumbfounded

at the taunting

blinking

cursor.

You have no idea how to start.

Marcie Colleen 1

Does this sound familiar?

Well, let me say, you are not alone. It happens to the best of us.

Today’s picture books are perfectly crafted, with no more than 300-500 concise words, expertly strung together across 12-14 page spreads.

With as few as words possible—and minimal real estate—picture book writers need to hook their reader with a mood, an adventure or scene, and a character beginning with the first page. No wonder starting a story seems monumental!

Your first sentence is extremely important.

Your first sentence has a big responsibility.

So what do you do if that first line is giving you trouble?

First off, get your story out. You can always go back and rewrite the first page once you start to revise. And yes, you will be revising. A LOT. That is what writing is. So go on. We’ll wait.

(twiddles thumbs, hums a few bars of “Stormy Weather”)

Oh, hi! You’re back! You have that first draft down?

OK. Let’s decide how to revise that very important opening line, shall we? And for this, we are going to use…

Mentor texts!

That’s right! Whenever I don’t know how what to write, I turn to those who have battled the beast before me.

But first, let’s gather some information from your own manuscript. And to help, you can use this little table below.

screenshot of table

 

Once you have filled in the chart with the essential elements of your story, it’s time to look at some mentor texts to help you with that opening line.

For this, I can just grab random books from my own personal library. But this can be done at the library or bookstore, as well. Anywhere from 6-12 books is a good number to start with.

It’s also helpful to choose books that have a similar mood, structure or theme as yours—although not necessary. But if you are not writing in rhyme, then choosing a rhyming mentor text will probably not help you. It is also helpful to choose books written in the last 5-10 years, as much as changed in picture books and mentor texts from this new era will be most beneficial.

Once you have your pile of mentor texts, open them up one at a time and read the opening line.

For example:

“It all began when Floyd’s kite became stuck in a tree.” Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel 2011).

stuck #2

This opening line is perfect. It hooks the reader right away. We learn who this story is about and are immediately informed of the adventure/conflict to take place.

Now, using your manuscript’s character and adventure/conflict, write an opening line in the same style.

“It all began when __________________.”

Grab another mentor text from the pile.

boy + bot 2

“A boy was collecting pinecones in his wagon when he met a robot.” Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino (Knopf 2012).

Now write your opening line using this format.

“A ___________ was ____________ when ____________.”

children make terrible pets

This is similar to the opening line of Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown (Little, Brown 2010):

“One morning, Lucy was practicing her twirls when she noticed she was being watched.”

Easy, right?

And keep on keeping on.

Whenever I write a manuscript, I usually have a stack of books by my side that serve as mentor texts for structure, theme, characters, etc. You will probably not settle on one of these opening lines, but you never know when something is going to spark or jog a new idea or two and set you on your way. And that, my friends is what it’s all about.


 

Marcie Colleen Bio Pic

Marcie Colleen had a busy 2014 with the sale of her debut picture book, The Adventure of the Penguinaut to Scholastic to tentatively be published in 2016. Additionally, her next book Love, Triangle sold in a five house auction to Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins as part of a two book deal. Marcie is proud to be represented by Susan Hawk/The Bent Agency. She lives in Brooklyn, NYC with her husband—Lego artist Jonathan Lopes—and their mischievous sock monkey. To learn more, visit her at www.thisismarciecolleen.com or follow her at @MarcieColleen1.

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Comments

  1. Great reminder to check mentor texts for 1st lines. I love examining my picture books. Thanks, both Marcie’s!

  2. Kirsten Larson says:

    Hi Marcies! Thanks for these helpful tips. Now if I could just get the rest of my story unstuck.

  3. Great post from great gals – thanks, Marcie X2!

  4. Great tip Marcie C! Great start to the series Marcie A!

  5. Wendy Greenley says:

    Hi Marcie! You always have solid advice. My problem is doing this again after I realize that my story isn’t about what I thought it was about. Onward.

    • I’m with you, Wendy! I have had that happen to me too. 🙂 But yes, onward. Revise on, friend! 🙂

    • Sometimes, Wendy, we need to write the entire story and then rewrite and rewrite and we finally figure out what it is we are writing. I once took a workshop on revising the first sentence/page from Richard Peck. He said that you can never write the first sentence/page until you write the last. So true. To have a full transformation or journey, you need to know where your character ends up. So, keep moving forward! xo

  6. Excellent info. Thank you. This will be shared. 🙂

  7. Brilliant post!

  8. Great post, Marcie! I love the idea of writing a first line in the style of mentor texts!

  9. Mentor texts are where it’s at! Great post, Marcie! They offer assistance in so many ways and I loved how you focused on one way here. Might as well start at the beginning, right? 🙂

    • Exactly, Carrie! I can’t imagine writing without that stack of mentor texts beside me. In fact, I’m off to read one right now to inspire me before I start today’s revisions. Have a great day! xo

  10. Becky Scharnhorst says:

    I love this idea! Thanks so much for sharing, Marcie! I’m going to try it out right now. 🙂

  11. So simple, yet so hard to do. Thanks for the tips!

  12. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    Oh, I can feel the clog unclogging. That tangle of hair dissolving. Words flowing. 😀 Thanks!

  13. Wow! I may never look at picture books the same way. This was eye-popping advice.
    Well, I’m off to browse those first lines in my PB collection, then I’ll head to the library and pick up another 50 PBs. I think that’s the limit…