Monday, March 25, 2013

7 Inspired Openings: Kirby Larson

Somewhere along my writing journey, this maxim got tattooed on my brain: “Start a story as close to the action as possible.” No dilly-dallying allowed in children’s literature. Step lively! A reader has their pick of ponies on this merry-go-round of published books; do what you can to make sure they choose yours.

Because this advice was shared by experienced writers, it never occurred to me to question it. And, honestly, it is good advice.

Except when it’s not.

Some years ago, during a dark period in my professional life, I received a gift in the form of a family story. Actually, a story fragment: one tiny rung on a ladder that would lead out of the dark and into a manuscript called Hattie Big Sky. Unbelievably, one of the first editors to see it signed it on. But she suggested some changes to the draft she’d seen (number thirteen!) and one of them gob-smacked me: “I want to know more about Hattie’s ordinary life,” she wrote in her editorial letter, “before she launches into her adventure.”

What? Slow things down? Set up a hurdle between the story and the chomping-at-the-bit reader? I groused and grumbled. And then I got a grip. I could always try her suggestion; if I didn’t like it, well, I could leave things as is.

As I dove back init hit me that, while I fully understood what my 16-year-old orphaned main character had to gain by leaving Iowa, my reader might not. I began to see an opportunity. Rather than telling the reader that Aunt Ivy resented Hattie, I could now show Ivy’s scheme to hire Hattie out as a chambermaid.

Now I found I had space to introduce Hattie’s school chum, Charlie: “Dear Charlie, Miss Simpson starts every day with a reminder to pray for you—and all the other boys who enlisted. Well, I say we should pray for the Kaiser—he’s going to need those prayers once he meets you.” This letter from Hattie allowed me to clarify the story’s timing – WWI – and set up her relationship with Charlie.

I soon found myself thinking that this stroll to the story’s starting line was not such a bad idea after all.

The story’s inciting incident (Hattie’s “scoundrel” uncle’s surprising letter) is still found in the first chapter, but on page eight instead of page two, as it was originally. By taking a few thoughtful steps back from her impulsive response to that letter, I gave myself the room to underline Hattie’s motivation, and bolster the story’s dramatic question.

I’ve noticed this technique elsewhere. In the Newbery honor book, Catherine Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, we are introduced to Birdy’s ordinary world through the first ten diary entries. It’s not until the eleventh entry that we learn that “something is astir” in Birdy’s life. David Patneaude employs the first pages of his thought-provoking novel, Epitaph Road, to reel us into Charlie’s world. We hike a ways through the forest with Charlie, his sister and mother before Patneaude startles us with the reason they are hurrying away from the rest of humanity. And Barbara O’Connor uses the first pages of On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s like a camera, panning in on Stella and her predictable life in Meadville, South Carolina --before a one-legged pigeon changes everything.

My editor’s advice might work for you, too. Consider starting a few feet back from your original starting line.

Give it a shot. You never know, it might take you and your readers on one heck of a ride.

About the Author

Kirby Larson is the acclaimed author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky, a young adult historical novel she wrote inspired by her great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. Just released—due to popular demand by her readers—is Hattie Ever After, the final installment in Hattie’s adventures. Her passion for historical fiction is evident in The Fences Between Us and The Friendship Doll, as well as a fall 2013 title, Duke. She is at work on a companion novel to Duke as well as a novel set in 1910.

In 2006, Kirby began a collaboration with her good friend, Mary Nethery, which has resulted in two award-winning nonfiction picture books: Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival (illustrated by Jean Cassels) and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle. They think three’s a lucky number so have their eyes peeled for another project to tackle together.

A frequent speaker, Kirby enjoys sharing her passion for research, reading and writing. She has presented at more than 200 schools, workshops, and seminars in nearly twenty states and as far away as Qatar and Lebanon.

Kirby lives in Kenmore, Washington with her husband, Neil. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Winston the Wonder Dog, Kirby enjoys gardening, bird watching, traveling, or drinking latt├ęs with friends.

Check out Kirby’s website
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About the Book

Great Falls, Montana, 1919

When Hattie mails off her last check to Mr. Nefzger, her uncle’s debt is paid in full. Now she is free to go anywhere, away from Mrs. Brown’s boardinghouse and the less-than-glamorous life of a chambermaid. Hattie’s dear friend Perilee urges her to do the sensible thing and join her family in Seattle. But Hattie is not prone to the sensible. What sensible girl would say yes to spending a year under Montana’s big sky trying to make a go of a long-lost uncle’s homestead claim? And what sensible girl would say no to Charlie, who is convinced he and Hattie are meant to grow old together?

For all its challenges and sorrows, Hattie’s time on the homestead gave her a taste of what if might be like to stake her own claim on life. She hasn’t yet confessed it to anyone, not even to Perilee, but Hattie has thrown a lasso around a dream even bigger than a Montana farm.

She wants to be a big-city reporter.

And thanks to a vaudeville vanishing act, a mysterious love token, an opera star and her unique ability to throw a snake ball, it looks like Hattie just might have a chance.

With Hattie Ever After, Kirby Larson has created another lovingly written novel about the remarkable and resilient young orphan Hattie Inez Brooks.

Buy Hattie Ever After on Amazon
Buy Hattie Ever After on Indiebound
Find Hattie Ever After on Goodreads


  1. This post spoke to me personally, Kirby. I've just gotten that same advice on a completed novel manuscript from one of my most trusted critique partners. It made sense, and I went back and started writing my protagonist in her ordinary world before the inciting incident. I think it's leading to a significant rewrite of some key elements (!*!). Thank you for sharing. I am intrigued by Hattie.

    1. Glad this was helpful to you! It is an interesting exercise, if nothing else, right?

  2. You know, I totally agree with this. I know we're supposed to start late, but I do think we can start too late. I for sure like to get to know the character in their regular world first, then on to the inciting incident. Sarah Dessen is great at this. Heck, James Scott Bell says the first "doorway of no return" should happen with in the first 25% of the book. That's a lot of wiggle room!

    Thanks for the great advice.

    1. Oh, I'd never heard that Bell quote -- love it! Do you wonder if the push to rush things might be our writer's way of "imitating" video games and that such imitation might be a mistake? Just wondering.

  3. Ah, this post gives me so much hope. I've often felt frustrated trying to get to the inciting incident so fast. I never enter first page critiques because I simply can't get to that moment in under 250 words. I love books that have some set up and a little backstory before the big bang. Thanks for this post and the hope.

    1. I hear you! I wonder if we could think of openings more like Tootsie Rolls -- we don't mind tasting that sweet hard candy (the ordinary world) before getting to the surprise of the chocolate center (inciting incident).

      We may start a whole new writing trend! Instead of the slow food movement, we'll be the slow novel movement. On second thought, I don't think that would catch on. ;-)

  4. Thanks, Kirby. I too feel the reader should get to know the characters and understand their world before springing the great dramatic moment on them. But the pressure to hook the reader with action prevails more often then not.

    I'm taking note of this excellent advice:)


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