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Put a boy on a bike...

I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I'm pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don't always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with.

Recognize this? It's the opening sentence to Robert Cormier's brilliant novel I Am the Cheese. In his introduction to the 1997 edition of the book, twenty years after it was first published, Cormier writes that "I Am the Cheese began as an exercise on a Saturday morning in the fall of 1975. As an experiment with first person-present tense, I placed a boy on a bicycle, trying to create action and movement with words, simply because I had nothing else to create."

For months he had been trying, without much success, to write something as good as the critically acclaimed The Chocolate Wars which had been published the year before. So he put a boy on a bike. And thousands of words later, the boy was still pedaling along. There was no conflict, no plot, no suspense. True, Cormier had planted a couple of "time bombs," as he calls them. The boy had decided not to take his pills that morning. He had a package. How would they explode? Cormier had no idea.

And then Comier came across a news item about a new government program involving identity. Bingo. The boy's bike ride had something to do with a search for identity. This is what propels the story--and what a wonderfully complex and challenging story it is! If you haven't read it, you should. Re-read it if it's been a while. You won't regret it.

Next time you need some inspiration, put a boy on a bike. Or a girl on a skateboard. See where they take you. You might be surprised.

Sara Latta lives and writes in Champaign, Illinois. Her most recent books, Ice Scientist and Lava Scientist were published by Enslow in February 2009. She's currently tagging along after a boy living in a coal mining town in 1919 to see where he takes her.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
cynthiareeg
May. 12th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)
Sara,
Thanks for the reminder that the writer always needs to start the story with her character in motion. Richard Peck is a favorite author of mine who does this so well.
slatta
May. 12th, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes, you're so right about Richard Peck. He's wonderful.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )