Earlier this year I participated in an online picture book competition where the notion was to enter the first fifty words of your manuscript. I knew just which manuscript I wanted to enter and I eagerly prepared the other requirements of the competition. Then I added my First Fifty.
There, all by themselves, on a lonesome page, those fifty words, were so, well, blah! They were well written, they were important to the story, but as the only part of my story these judges would see, they were so absolutely inadequate. They did not showcase my feisty female character. They did not reveal my interesting premise. They did not hint at the conflict. They offered nothing but a setting.
As writers we have the privilege of knowing the whole story. We even know the back story. We know the characters. We know the inspiration behind the story – the part that initially stirred our passion to write that particular story. This is also our handicap. Because we rely on how good the story is, how deep the passion runs, we don’t always start in the strongest way possible. We know we’re getting to the good stuff.
What this competition taught me is the beginning needs to be the very best stuff. If readers aren’t captured by my First Fifty, they might not hang around to get to the good stuff.
In my case, with some editing, I was able to flip my first and second paragraphs. This simple move brought the heart of my story to my First Fifty.
What should your First Fifty highlight?
2. Main character
6. Universal theme
Let’s look at a few new picture book examples where the authors grabbed my attention with their first fifty words:
Steve was raised by wolves. He loved wrestling and hunting and chasing campers. Then one day Steve’s mom walked him through the woods, past the lake and to the bus stop.
“Steve,” his mom said, “I know you’re anxious about going to school. It’s not always easy to get along with humans, but just be yourself…”
The First Fifty in this book unfold across three spreads and give the reader voice, character, setting, conflict, a foreshadowing of the dry humor to come, and a smidge of the universal theme.
This is Tim. One day after school Tim met Sam. Sam lived in the sea, but took a wrong turn and got stuck here. He didn’t know his lefts from his rights. The other kids were too busy to notice the big blue whale. Sometimes Tim felt no one noticed him either.
Here the First Fifty run across two spreads. Can you find which elements are established here to draw the reader in?
“I want to be a cat.”
“You can’t be a cat”
“Because you are a FROG.”
“I don’t like being a frog. It is too wet.”
“Well, you can’t be a cat.”
“I want to be a rabbit.”
“You can’t be a rabbit.”
“Why not. Look, I can hop.”
In this book three spreads are used for the First Fifty. The text is entirely in speech bubbles. I know you want to read the rest. What drew you in?
After my excursion to the bookstore and piles and piles of picture books, I noticed a trend. Many books started in a less stellar way, and I had to make a choice to hang in there and get to the good stuff. And honestly, with some, I didn’t hang in. However, the books that grabbed me with their First Fifty held my attention all the way through. They were so delightful I had to read them again. And then again to pour over the illustrations. If your First Fifty shine, your book will shine!