Featured Author Sophia Gholz May 2019

Sophia GholzRevision and Opening Lines

Whether you’ve spent months researching a story idea or an intriguing character has just popped into your head, typing the first words on a blank page can be intimidating. Let’s be honest, writing is hard and those first few lines are often the hardest. Thankfully, we don’t have to share our first draft or the second or even the third. The revision process allows us the opportunity to dissect and polish our stories. We just have to put that rocky first draft on paper to begin with.

When I started writing my book, The Boy Who Grew A Forest: The True Story of Jadav Payeng, I went through many drafts and struggled with the opening lines. I’d spent weeks researching Jadav’s story and had a general idea of the direction I wanted to go, but I couldn’t quite figure out the best approach in the telling of this story. In nonfiction, it’s important to be honest, while still crafting a storyline that readers connect with it. This was the opening line of my first draft:

By a river in India, Jadav Payeng is planting.

While that statement is honest, I wasn’t sold on that line. I felt like I could pull the camera back even further to establish more of the location. Plus, I didn’t think this opening fully set the mood I was hoping for. In fact, that sentence is actually a good example of “telling” the reader what is happening, without providing much else. That line might be factual, but it also wasn’t very exciting and told us nothing about Jadav’s motivation. What is so special about someone planting and why should the reader care? Where is the hook?

Some might feel that I’m reading too much into those nine words. But, as a picture book writer, I have learned how important each word is in a manuscript. Every single word has to be imperative to the story when working with word count limitations. We have to ask ourselves: Is each word or line establishing mood, the setting or character development and does it move the plot forward? On my next draft, my opening line read:

On a river island, in India, there was a beach where nothing grew.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest by Sophia GholzThis opening sentence certainly is a little more exciting. It establishes an island as the location, and it creates a little bit of mystery. A place where nothing grows? Hmm… But that sentence immediately sets the reader on the barren island location, and I needed to rewind to set things up before arriving in this particular place. I felt like, at this rate, I might spend the first few spreads talking about the island and why things aren’t growing, before even having the chance to introduce Jadav and his mission. A few revisions later, my new opening line was this:

On an island, among lush forests, farms and families hard at work, Jadav Payeng dreams of trees.

Now we’re getting a little closer. I’m packing more into the opening line by creating a fuller setting, while simultaneously introducing Jadav and his dream/motivation. However, I felt like this opening line left room for some confusion. If Jadav is among “lush forests”, why is he dreaming of trees and not out playing in them? I also knew that I wanted to establish India as the specific location, while showing how large this island is. I wanted to start with the camera zoomed out as far as possible and then zero in on Jadav. So, a few full manuscript revisions later, my final opening line became:

In India, on a large river island, among farms and families hard at work, there lived a boy who loved trees.

By removing Jadav’s name and referring to him as “a boy”, I felt like I had distanced the reader slightly and maintained a bit of magic and mystery. By switching “dreams of trees” with “loved trees” I felt that Jadav had more of a concrete reason and motivation for every single action to come. If he had just dreamed about trees, his motivation didn’t feel as strong. Most importantly, however, I was able to use this new line to launch more naturally into the direction I wanted to take this story:

The boy loved trees because [show the reader why trees are important, which sets the stakes]…and therefore…[the stakes lead right into a call to action]…

In other words, this final opening line accomplished what I needed it to, while providing a springboard for the rest of Jadav’s story.

One might look at my different opening lines and think that they’re all similar or that any one of them could have worked. And maybe they would be right. But, for me, I knew I had to keep at it until everything clicked. Each of us is different in the way we think about and craft our stories. But the consistent factor among us all is how important the revision process is. If we don’t allow ourselves the time to write and then rewrite, we might not ever know what our story’s true potential is.

Writing isn’t about that first draft or the second or even the third. Writing is a process of learning where we want a story to go and how best to get there. Through revision, we are able to chisel away at our stories like a sculptor with a piece of stone. Are our words moving the plot forward, maintaining mood or building character? Will our readers read past that first line or close the book right away?

Our first draft is like a rough geode pulled from the ground. Inside, there is a sparkling surprise. We just have to get there.


Sophia Gholz is a children’s book author, a two-time Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Rising Kite Award winner, the managing owner of www.RateYourStory.org, and a board director at www.KidLiteracy.org, a nonprofit organization focused on early literacy initiatives. Sophia writes fiction and nonfiction for children of all ages. Her debut book, THE BOY WHO GREW A FOREST: THE TRUE STORY OF JADAV PAYENG was recently released and has received starred reviews and been featured on numerous lists. For more, you can find Sophia online with the links below:

Website: www.sophiagholz.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/sophiagholzauthor

Twitter: www.twitter.com/sophiagholz

Sophia is offering an amazing prize this month! One lucky winner will get 6 submissions passes to Rate Your Story, plus access to the members-only newsletter through the rest of the year! Get cracking on those manuscripts and revisions!

This Post Has 179 Comments

  1. Sophia, I LOVE that you told this story! I am all about THE TREES just like Jadav Payeng! I just launched my newest book on Earth Day called And The Trees Began To Move! Because YES! They are THAT important to write about!

  2. I ordered this book recently and can’t wait to read it.

    I love how you’ve taken us step by step of how you polished the opening line. That first sentence is so important. And then, of course, every word should count. Revision, revision, revision.

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post, Sophia.

  3. How timely for me as I adjust the first line of a manuscript my agent and I are about to send on sub! Thank you so much for sharing your thought processes.

  4. Sophia, this helpful post really shows the work that goes into the revision process. That opening line is so important, and even though we love our words we do need to drill down until they convey the truth of the story. Congratulations on your book!

  5. Thank you for sharing different versions of your opening line. It was fun to see it grow. And congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Carolyn. I still find it so helpful to peek inside the process of other writers. It’s interesting how we all approach the same thing in our own unique ways. Best of luck and happy writing!

  6. Loved reading about your journey of opening lines. Sometimes that first line comes to you first, but often you do have to go through several revisions before you say, “Eureka!”

    1. Thank you, Barbara. I have a few manuscripts where the opening line remained the same throughout. It’s rare, but when that does happen it is pretty magical. Happy writing to you!

  7. Beginnings can be so hard! I often just put “something” down as a place holder and just keep writing. Then I go back an re-write (and re-write and re-write) the beginning lines as the story evolves. Thank you for sharing your process with us and congratulations on the book!

    1. Thanks, Heather! That “place holder” is a vital step in our writing process. For me, the entire first draft is usually just a place holder that will eventually change again and again.

  8. Thank you for sharing some of your many first lines! Congratulations, and I can’t wait to read it!

  9. Thank you for sharing your first line revision process. I like where you ended up. Can’t wait to read the whole story.

  10. Thank you for sharing your editing process! It’s easy to imagine that it comes easy for everyone else! 🙈

    1. I still feel that way, Michele. I have to remind myself that the books I read with ease, were probably the most difficult to write. I can be quick to think: “oh, it must have flowed so naturally for this author. Why is it so hard for me?” But easy reading often means masterful writing, and that takes time and effort. Best of luck to you!

  11. Thanks for the great post! I really appreciate seeing the evolution of your opening line. It can be a tricky process!

  12. Sphia,
    I’ve been struggling with rewriting my first line of my PB bio so your column was perfect for me. How to get the most out of the least luscious words? Thanks for your insight.

  13. I love how you showed how to work and rework your first line into the springboard for your story. Congratulations on this beautiful book.

  14. Thanks for sharing this evolution, Sophia. I can’t wait to read the second line…and all the rest.

  15. Sophia you are so right about working out where the story needs to go. Thank you for sharing how you worked with this process. Best Wishes!

  16. Sophia, thank you for taking us through your process and giving us a glimpse of the time and work you went through until you came upon the satisfaction line.

  17. Sophia, this is great post! Thanks for sharing your process. I can’t wait to read your book!

  18. What a treasure to read about the thought process behind your opening line Sophia. I am so pleased that your beautiful story is out in the world. We need more Jadav’s in the world.

  19. Sophia – thank you so much for sharing the thought processes you went through (and your first line drafts) when crafting your final first sentence. I often struggle with the first sentence because I know it has to be spot on or we’ll lose the reader. With your process in mind, I am now planning to go back and review some of my first sentences. (I want that book too!!)

    1. Thank you, Kellie! Those first lines are important and so hard sometimes. Remember, just get something–anything–on paper to begin with. Everything else will come in revision. Best of luck!

  20. Thank you, Sophia, for this post. I particularly enjoyed the concrete examples that you provided. Showing how your first line progressed was extremely helpful and explained things in a way that pure description couldn’t have. In that way, it’s an example of showing not telling in and of itself. Happy revising!

  21. Really interesting to see how your first lines changed at each revision, and how they can really suck the reader into the story from the get go. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  22. Loved seeing the several versions of your first line and your thought process as you revised. Thank you, Sophia.

  23. Sophia, your sage advice about expecting “rocky first drafts” is spot on! Your analogy of how to keep tapping at that “geode” to find the gem of a story reminds us that good writing is a trek, a long journey that takes perseverance and continued belief in ourselves as writers and illustrators. As I research picture books, I’ll be asking how the opening lines establish the story’s mood, setting, character, or direction. While revising, I’ll keep in mind how “opening line launches the direction of the story.” I look forward buying, reading, and sharing your debut book. Tossing confetti your way! Right now, I’m sweating through the 20th revision of a PB story, one that 12 x 12 Participants have applauded with much encouragement to continue. I trek on! And, thanks to your candor and willingness to write this blog, I have Post-It notes of Sophia Gholz quotes decorating my home office. My favorite of yours is the following: “Writing is a process of learning where we want a story to go and how best to get there.” May you continue your writing journey with success and fulfillment! Cheers!

  24. It’s so helpful to be able to see someone’s process like this, thank you. It’s making me rethink a few opening lines of mine…

    1. I have always loved peeking into the process of other writers. I still find it so helpful to see how others work. It’s amazing how different we are in our approach, but the same in our goals of good story telling. Best of luck to you, Carrie, and happy writing!

  25. Thanks so much, Sophia. You’re comments have prompted me to go back through some of my manuscripts and see how that first line has changed — and, perhaps more importantly, think about why I made those changes.

  26. Thanks for giving us a peek into your revision process! It’s a great reminder of how important that first line is. Also, your book looks gorgeous and is on my “to read” list.

  27. Thank you, Sophia. Excellent post. A great way to show the process of an opening line. I’ll be looking for your book! (I’m a member of RYS, so if I win, I’d be happy to gift your prize to another writer.)

  28. Thank you, Sophia! I love how you shared the evolution of your first line. I think it is so helpful to see inside the mind of an author and how every word truly makes a difference.

    1. Thanks, Aimee! I still love it when other authors lift the curtain and give us a behind-the-scenes view. It’s so helpful to see how others work. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  29. I loved following the logical progression through your choices, Sophia. Thank you for sharing this! I have not yet read your book, but am looking forward to discovering the “rest of the story.” I did request it through the San Francisco Public Library. They now have six on order. Cheers!

    1. Six on order? Wow! That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you for sharing, Jilanne! I hope you enjoy the rest of Jadav’s story, too. Best of luck and happy writing!

  30. I am looking forward to reading The Boy Who Grew a Forest and enjoying the fruits of your labor. Thank you for giving us a glimpse at your process and and showing us how you’ve developed your craft.

  31. Sophia – thank you for the verbal tour through the many iterations of your first line. It was fun to watch it grow and become more lyrical as you figured out what you wanted it to do. You provide an excellent reminder of the power of words, especially in picture books.

  32. Thank you for sharing how you grew your story’s beginning. This example is great for showing how important the beginning line is to a book.

  33. Thanks for sharing your draft beginning for The Boy Who Grew a Forest. It is always helpful to read other writer’s strategies for improving that most important opening.

  34. Thanks so much for showing us your process on coming up with your first line. It’s definitely something I need to pay attention to. Looking forward to reading your book!! It sounds super interesting, probably because I love other cultures and trees too! Thanks for the encouragement that our rough drafts are geodes. That was a great visual

  35. Sophia, I love the way you analyzed your first line to come up with a gem! Thanks for your post.

  36. Thank you for the great post, Sophia. It was helpful to see the progression of your revisions laid out. I just put your debut on reserve at the library and can’t wait to go pick it up! Congratulations!

  37. Thanks for sharing your thought process, Sophia! So interesting to see how different authors approach a story.

    1. Thank you, Wendy. I’ve always found it helpful to take a peek at the process of other writers and am happy to be able to lift the curtain. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Happy writing!

  38. This was helpful for my first lines and hook and leaning to the next part; what is the problem?
    I will look over my manuscripts and see if I can make them better and more of a hook that draws in the reader.

  39. ” If we don’t allow ourselves the time to write and then rewrite, we might not ever know what our story’s true potential is.” Thank you, Sophia, for your insight. Congratulations on your new book! I look forward to reading it.

  40. Sophia, Thanks for your specific examples of how you changed that first line, gradually over time, as you worked through the revision process and discovered what you wanted to say. It takes time and patience and a willingness to experiment and change. Thanks for giving us insights into your process.

    1. Thank you, Marty. The writing process is an experimental one. I’ve always found it interesting to see what works for some and not for others. I hope my post was helpful and am wishing you happy writing!

  41. Sophia, this is a wonderful post. First lines and last lines are so difficult to get just right. I liked reading how you came up with your final opening line. Thanks for sharing!

  42. I enjoyed reading about your process for tweaking an opening line. It made a lot of sense – and made me feel a little less crazy for laboring over my own “springboard” lines!

    1. You’re not crazy, Krysta. Well, maybe I should say that you’re just not any more crazy than the rest of us. 😉 It’s so important that our springboards have the perfect amount of bounce and are aimed at the right angles. Cheers to great revisions and happy writing!

  43. It was really interesting to follow your thought processes working through that crucial opening sentence. I’ve always tried to have my openers be interesting, but this gave me a lot more to think about–and try. Thank you!

  44. Sophia –

    Your story was very inspiring. I feel like I am constantly revising and tweaking and sometimes completely starting over on some of my stories. Your process makes me feel a little less nutty for doing so. Thanks for the insight!

    1. In general, the life of a writer is a pretty nutty one. But that doesn’t mean you are nutty yourself. It’s all just a part of the process.

      I feel like I am in a constant state of revision. Even when my contract was signed and the text was approved, we made minor tweaks right up until we went to print with this book. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe we are all a little nutty. 😉

      Best of luck and happy writing!

  45. Thanks for sharing your process, Sophia. Opening lines are tricky. Sometimes they pop right into place and other times (most times!) they need wiggling and jiggling. It was very helpful to see the different versions of your opening line and your analysis.

  46. Loved how you took us through revisions of the first line. Your comments are a reminder that we need to keep striving for words that speak to the reader and keeps their interest. Thank you.

  47. Thanks for sharing your insights about your opening line. It’s so important. Can’t wait to read your book.

  48. Sophia, like so many have said, I appreciate you sharing specific examples of your first line revisions and sharing your thoughts as to why you kept revising. Thank you too for commenting with meaningful insight to each of our fellow writer’s
    comments. This ongoing dialogue is a treasure too!

    Congratulations on the many ways you are promoting children’s literacy. I look forward to reading your debut book with my grandsons someday.

    1. Hi, Brenda, thanks for reading and for your kind comment. I’m glad to know you found my post helpful. I try to be as accessible as possible for my fellow writers. I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the help and guidance from others. I hope that you and your grandsons enjoy the rest of Jadav’s story. Thanks again and happy writing to you!

  49. Congratulations on your debut book! I look forward to reading all the lines after the first. Thank you for sharing the process of the first line revisions.

  50. Thank you, Sophia, for sharing how revision can get us to the just the right words we need in our stories. Your first line revisions were a wonderful example. Can’t wait to read your book!

  51. I was so drawn in to Sophie’s thinking process and iterations of that story opening! I have a nice little collection of notes to apply to a future draft. Congrats, Sophie on this publication!

    1. That’s wonderful to hear, Trisha! I’m so glad my post has been helpful. Best of luck and happy writing to you. I look forward to seeing your name on the shelves!

  52. I love your analogy of first drafts being like a geode and that we have to keep chipping away at the crusty exterior to get to the sparkly middle. I think you’re right about how vital those opening lines are, too, in order to keep a reader reading and not closing the book before they get to the sparkly middle. An excellent reminder – thank you.

  53. Sophia- this post is so wonderful! It is incredibly helpful to see your process and I absolutely love the geode analogy! I’m thrilled to see your beautiful book out in the world!

  54. Sophia, it was so interesting and useful to see the way you thought about each opening and what is did and didn’t do. I appreciated that under-the-bonnet/hood look. What a great lesson in continuing to push oneself. Thank you.

  55. This was an interesting glimpse into your mind. A couple of times, I read your “new” first line, had a thought about it, and then read below that you had the same thought! Thank you for sharing part of your process!

    1. Thank you, Carol! Sometimes we can feel crazy when we analyze a single line for so long. We’re left wondering what we’re missing? Are we overthinking? What do we do? Gah! So, it’s nice to hear that you also felt the same about each line as you read my post. Maybe I’m not crazy after all…or maybe we both are. 😉

  56. How interesting to see all the various forms of your opening line and how it evolved. Thanks for taking us through your process!

  57. Sophia,
    What a fabulous post! Loved seeing your process for getting that opening sentence ” just right”!
    Can’t wait to read your book!

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