Saturday, January 19, 2019

First lines and first loves

“There once was a cat….” is possibly the first line to (possibly many) of the first of my short stories as a child.

 As I grew into an adult writer, it didn’t change much: “Her striking beauty stared up at me from the front page of the Monday edition of The Daily Reporter.” It is a more polished sentence and hopefully has a little more catch, but it still refers to a cat. This is the first line from my first published novel, the middle grade mystery, “The Great Cat Nap.” It is the first in a series of adventures of Ace the Cat.

First lines for me are always much like a new love interest. They are shiny and new, full of possibility and wonder. Expectation, promises, butterflies in the stomach, blushing. The adventure of learning an entirely new language - the language of someone else, the language of this particular story. Hope. First lines are the start of potential, a fiery spark, and an entirely new journey through the brambles and tangles that are my mind and imagination. And I do not want the magic to end.

Much like falling in love, with starting a new novel, I lose my steps. Time collapses. All I am consumed with is this new novel ideal. I talk to myself mid-day, stretching that first sentence into futures and dialogue, plot lines and characters rich with depth, yet also crashing tensions and disaster, a moment of all lost hope, and finally, a happy ending. Or, mostly happy endings. You’ll find I don’t always believe in them in their entirety.

It’s true not all of my novels – or my unfinished manuscripts sitting on my computer like stones waiting to be unearthed from the beach – they did not all start with that first line, though so many of them have for me. Others began with a thought, a strand, a single word uttered by a character who begins to haunt me. Begging me, really, to write their story.

Writing in general is much like being in love, and many times, you fall out of love, just like with some manuscripts. Not all stories are meant to be finished, no matter how good that first line is, so not all of them will be. That's okay. Some are all right to be started and shelved until they are ready to reveal all their secrets and then be completed another day, month, year. Others, however, will be the best of you, the very best of your love and your life. They will endure the test of time and writer's block and self-doubt and rejection and fear. And if you’re really blessed, you’ll get to share that writing with someone else. You’ll share it with readers who crack the spine to lay their eyes on that very first line. That book will endure the test of time.

Happy reading!

(photo courtesy of

To celebrate the new year, I will be giving away a personally signed copy of The Great Cat Nap right here at Smack Dab in the Middle! To enter, just comment what your favorite first line is, or what book has your favorite first line. At the end of January, I will choose a random winner and mail the paperback copy. Good luck!

(photo by AM Bostwick)

Friday, January 18, 2019

A Book's First Line Is Not Its MOST Important Line

Here's my heretical opinion:

A book's first line is not its most important line.

Ditto for the last line.

Instead, as both writer and reader, I place most weight on  - ta-dah! - the last line of the first chapter. For me, this is where the book's central dramatic question can be posed most crisply and distilled most succinctly. It clarifies for the reader what the book, most fundamentally, is about.

I wrote an article in praise of this crucial, but often overlooked, line in an article for the SCBWI Bulletin a couple of years ago. (It's definitely my pet obsession.) There I argued,"If a book's opening sentence entices the reader to finish the first chapter, the last line of that chapter convinces the reader to finish the entire book."

So in the first chapter of the launch title in my Nora Notebooks series, The Trouble with Ants, budding-scientist and ant-lover Nora decides to try to break the Guinness World Record for youngest person ever to publish an article in a peer-reviewed science journal.
Nora's sure she's a shoe-in to smash the record: after all, isn't she already the leading ten-year-old expert on myrmecology, the scientific study of ants? She glances over at her ants scurrying about in their ant farm, and the chapter ends with this line: "They had no idea how important they were soon going to be to the future of science."

Likewise, in the final book in the series, The Trouble with Friends, I placed similar weight on the first chapter's closing line.
As the book opens, Nora's teacher gives his class a challenge to do something completely new over the course of the next six weeks, whether trying a new sport or musical instrument, eating a new food, learning a few words in a new language, or making a new friend, "preferably someone as different from you as possible." When Nora's nemesis, Emma, who is opposite from her in just about every way, approaches her with an invitation for a sleepover (the last thing in the world Nora would ever want to do),  I end the chapter this way: "A terrible suspicion began to form in Nora's brain: Emma's new project was her."

Whenever I work as a mentor with emerging middle-grade writers, in manuscript after manuscript I get to the end of the first chapter with no idea at all where the story is heading. It's the role of the first chapter's last line to serve as a signpost, pointing the way forward.

Now, I have to confess I read many brilliant, best-selling, award-winning middle-grade books that don't end their first chapter with that satisfying little CLICK! in the final sentence. But when I'm floundering in my own work-in-progress, nothing helps as much as tinkering with the first chapter's last line. It's where I answer the "What is this book about?" for me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Endings and Beginnings!

The Old Year

John Clare, 1793 – 1864
The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

 And welcome to the New Year!

I am reminded of what T.S. Elliot once said, that last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words are yet to be written.

So now we have an opportunity to begin a new story. A blank page is in front of me, and I’m still trying to figure out my first line. It’s intimating, writing that first line. An argument can be made that the beginning of the story is the most important. First impressions and all. In fact Jacob Appel suggests in his article, 10 Ways to Start Your Story Better,  believes that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph, “and that the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the very first sentence.”

“In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance, as mouthwash commercials often remind us, to make a first impression.”

Consider these iconic first lines:

Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice (1813): It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851): Call me Ishmael.

George Orwell, 1984 (1949): It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities (1859) : It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850): Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451(1953): It was a pleasure to burn.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1953): It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937): Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

So I wrote my first line, to my new story. It reads:

To see the elephant: an American expression popular in the 19th century. It means to gain experience, overcome unexpected dangers and face the miseries of life, but at an extraordinary cost.

I’ll work on it.

What is the first line to your new story? 

Bobbi Miller

Monday, January 14, 2019

Interview with Author Jarrett Lerner, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

I’m so happy to be interviewing Jarrett Lerner today. He’s the author of EngiNerds (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin 2017) and the sequel, Revenge of the EngiNerds (also S&S/Aladdin), soaring into the world next month on February 19.

In the first book, Ken is an EngiNerd, one of a super-smart group of friends. Ken’s best friend Dan builds robots and secretly sends one to each of the EngiNerds. At first, Ken is thrilled – he has a robot on call to clean his room, walk the dog, and help with homework – but when Dan’s robot starts eating ravenously and causing mayhem, it’s up to the EngiNerds to save the day. The battle between boys and bots is on!

In the sequel, the crew returns in a nerdy new adventure. The EngiNerds are on the hunt for one rogue robot. But Ken’s the only one who seems concerned – the rest of the gang are MIA, and Ken thinks it’s because of a new girl in town who is obsessed with UFOs and aliens, and wants to join the EngiNerds. Will Ken be able to stop a rogue robot and a know-it-all, genius girl from wreaking havoc on the entire universe?  

These hilarious STEM adventure books, which also explore themes of leadership and friendship, have been a big hit. The first book was a 2018 Global Read Aloud finalist.

MWH: Welcome to the blog, Jarrett! Tell us about your upcoming sequel. Did you have a second book in mind when you wrote the first?

JL: Thank you so much for having me, Michele! It’s great to be here!
Revenge of the EngiNerds picks up right where EngiNerds leaves off – and it’s a good thing, I think, otherwise I might have some pretty upset readers! I did have this second book in mind when writing the first. I reached what I felt was a good stopping point in Book 1 – but the EngiNerds’ story certainly wasn’t done yet.

MWH: How did you come up with the idea for the books? I have to ask, were you (or are you) an EngiNerd?

JL: I often describe EngiNerds as “tinkerers” – people who are curious about the world around them and the things that make it up, and whose curiosity often manifests itself in a tactile manner. Which is just a fancy-pants way of saying that tinkerers like to get their hands on stuff. They like to take things apart and find out how they work. They like to build, to put together, to construct. Using that definition, yes – I am most definitely an EngiNerd, and I always have been. Chopstick catapults play a large part in the first book of the series, and as a kid, I really did build such things. I didn’t use the catapults to battle a horde of endlessly hungry, dangerously flatulent robots. But still.

Being an EngiNerd myself, it wasn’t too hard to write about such kids. But their story, perhaps surprisingly, originated from a place of frustration. My agent and I had been on submission with two other novels before I even started EngiNerds, and while I got some nibbles, there were no full-on bites. These novels were quite different than EngiNerds – they were longer, for one thing, and tackled more serious themes. One day, I sat down and told myself, “I’m going to write the exact sort of book that I would’ve gone gaga over when I was 10 years old.” EngiNerds rocketed out of me, and so did a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s a pretty simple thing – but just telling myself to write for a younger me helped me find what I believe to be my voice. It’s been five, maybe six years since I had that little epiphany, and I haven’t looked back since. 

MWH: Was writing a sequel easier, because you had the characters and story line in place? How was your writing process with the second book, as compared to the first?

JL: I don’t think I could say whether it was “easier” or “harder.” What I can say is that it was decidedly different. Sequels present particular challenges that stand-alone novels and series-starters don’t. They also offer unique pleasures that those other kinds of books don’t. It was a joy to return to all these characters I love, and to already know them so well. But when it came to plotting out the story, sometimes the characters’ fully-formed-ness got in the way. I couldn’t “massage” a character as I was writing for the sake of the tightness of the plot – and while revising, there were times when I really, really wished I could do that!

MWH: Tell us about your daily writing routine. Coffee shops? Work at home? Play music? Talk to the walls?

JL: Before I became a dad and before I started doing so much book-related traveling (both things happened at about the same time!), I had a much more regular routine. I’d wake up early, way before my wife, and drink an unreasonable amount of coffee while scrawling away in my notebooks. But even back then, I’d purposely upset my routines now and again. I don’t think it’s healthy or productive for a creator to get too precious about their routines. Because there’ll no doubt be times in your life when you can’t satisfy those ideal conditions, and then what? You lose a day of writing. Or a week. Or a month. Or a year.

I’m very, very glad I did all that intentional routine-upsetting. It prepared me well for my current situation, where one day I’ll have five whole uninterrupted hours to draw and write, and the next day I’ll have about five minutes. It’s not easy, but I’ve gotten better at maximizing my productivity at the drop of a hat. Sometimes, nap time is the ONLY time I get to work, or a few minutes in the morning before going off to a school visit. I make the most out of every single one of those seconds.

MWH: You’re one of the founders of MG Book Village, an online hub for all things middle grade. Can you explain how that came about, and what the site hopes to achieve?

JL: It all started on Twitter, with a month-long celebration of Middle Grade literature set up by Annaliese Avery – #MGBooktober. The whole thing really took off, and Annaliese asked me to help her out with it. As the month was coming to a close, people expressed their sadness that the celebration – and the community it had brought together around books on a daily basis – was ending. And so Annaliese, librarian Kathie MacIsaac, and I created a Twitter celebration for November, and for December. It was during THAT month that we decided to launch the site, mostly just as a place to organize our future Twitter fun, but also as a place for members of the community – authors, educators, librarians, and KIDS – to share whatever they might want to. Just like our Twitter events, the site sort of exploded. A few months after getting things going, we teamed up with the MG at Heart Book Club and Corrina Allen (from the Books Between podcast) and, in addition to everything they do at the site, we host cover reveals, conduct interviews, share thought pieces, and post book reviews. Most recently, we launched a weekly Twitter chat (#MGBookChat), which happens pretty much every Monday night at 9 pm EST. EVERYONE is welcome at the Village, so if anyone reading this has something they’d like to share or suggest we do, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

MWH: You’re also the co-organizer of #KidsNeedMentors. The mentor project connects authors to classrooms for an entire school year with multiple Skype visits and a variety of author-student interaction. It’s been a successful first year, with hundreds of educators and authors on board. Tell us what’s next for this amazing program.

JL: This first year has been beyond successful – it’s more than the other co-organizers and I could’ve possibly hoped for. We’ve already got a massive waitlist for next year, and foresee even more educators and librarians applying, and so will be making a big push to recruit more creators in an effort to allow everyone involved who wants to be involved. Find out more here. And to follow along with the program and see the impact it’s having, follow the #KidsNeedMentors hashtag on Twitter. Participants are posting about the amazing things they’re doing all the time!

MWH: Do you have a favorite childhood book and/or reading memory? What inspired you to become an author?

JL: I vividly remember all the books that my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Lombard, read aloud to my class. He had a deep, gravelly, booming voice, and he’d use that to narrate, but he’d also come up with a different voice for each and every character, some of them highly silly. I particularly remember him reading us The BFG, and the way all 25 or 30 of us would go from laughing out loud to sniffling with sadness. Those experiences really drove home how powerful stories could be – and storytelling too.
From then on, I was hooked on books. Even when reading wasn’t the main thing I was doing, I always had a book or two going. I was addicted to stories, and their unique brand of magic. And I think all of us creators have something inside of us, a spark that fizzes a bit whenever we encounter a work of art, and that this little reaction compels us to try and make some art of our own. And so I started writing my own stories and making my own comic books, and sooner or later, that spark of mine really started to sizzle, and then it flared up into a full-blown fire.

Even so, it wasn’t until I was in college that I really, truly believed I could be an author. It took having an author I looked up to a great deal encouraging me to go for it – and then giving me some practical advice on how to go for it – for me to believe in myself enough to take that leap. That’s one of the reasons I spend so much of my time connecting with kids and helping others do the same. If fourth-grade Jarrett had met a published author or illustrator, if I’d come to see that they were also just book-lovers who’d put in a lot of work to get where they were, if I’d been given even the slightest bit of acknowledgement, validation, encouragement – or even just information! – from them, it would’ve changed my life.

MWH: What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

JL: I’ve run two marathons, and a whole bunch of half-marathons. One of the half-marathons was in Iceland, which was a particularly amazing run. I haven’t had the time in a while to get back into long-distance running, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of exhausted accomplishment you get after a long, hard run.

MWH: Can you share some advice you’d give to writers hoping to break in to middle grade? How long did it take you to get published, and what bumps did you encounter along the way?

JL: For years, I thought I was a YA author. It took several finished manuscripts, and several rounds of feedback from my agent in which she kept on mentioning that all of my supposedly young adult characters felt “too young,” before I even realized I wrote MG. So, I guess that was all a pretty big bump. Pretty much as soon as I discovered and fully embraced my “MG-ness,” I started producing much better work, and started selling books. But it took years of trying to cram my MG stories into a YA mold before I got there.

Sometimes I look back on it all and wish I’d figured it out sooner, but really, I know I had to write all that unpublished (and unpublishable) stuff before I could get here. It’s part of the process of finding yourself. And every day that I sit down to create, I’m still engaging in that process, still trying to figure out exactly who I am as a creator. So, I guess that’d be my advice – to embrace the process. To try to be patient with it, and with yourself. Nothing happens quickly in this industry. And when you get to where you’re supposed to be, you’ll be glad for all you learned on the journey.

MWH: What are you working on next?

JL: I’ve got an early chapter book series, GEEGER THE ROBOT, launching in 2020, and another project I can’t quite talk about yet coming out later on in 2020. I’ve also got lots of other projects in various stages of completion. I’m rarely working on just one thing at a time. Usually it’s two or three, or even four or five.

MWH: Last question, tell us 1) your favorite ice cream flavor, 2) the craziest question you’ve been asked at a school visit, and 3) if you had to choose, would you rather be Superman or Batman 😊 ?

JL: Okay… 1) Mint chocolate chip. Or no – coffee. Or actually anything that has health bar in it. Or – or – or –
2) I once got asked – extensively – about my diet. Maybe it’s because I write so much about food? Or maybe they were doing some sort of diet-related project in their classes? I don’t know, but these kids wanted to know what I ate and when I ate it and how much of it I ate. Which was all fine by me, as eating is one of my favorite pastimes.
3) I want to say Batman, because he’s got the house and the cave and all the cool gizmos and gadgets. But he’s such a BUMMER. He’s definitely the sulkiest of the superheroes. But Superman has always felt, to me, a little too upstanding and righteous. Like, I can’t imagine him having fun. And I think Batman at least has a sense of humor – it’s just really, really, really dark. So, yeah – Batman. But a bit begrudgingly.

Good luck on the release of Revenge of the EngiNerds! Find the book here on Indie Bound.

Jarrett Lerner can be found at, on Twitter at @Jarrett_Lerner, and on Instagram at @jarrettlerner. He lives in Medford, Massachusetts, with his wife, his daughter, and a cat.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, with a fifth coming in 2020. Find her at