Mind Your Firsts

I pay close attention to first lines. One of my writer aspirations is to have such a great first line that they’ll be begging me to use it in the “First Lines” section of Poets & Writers. I read that section, every month, scrutinizing the novel lines. Then whenever I start a new book, I look very closely at that first line, think about it.

Yesterday, I began a book with a terrible first line. I won’t go into deets here, although I can imagine myself in the future as a writing professor putting it up on the holographic board and asking my students to critique it for me. (Bless my husband, who actually asked me, “Well, what’s wrong with it?” Fun times.) It sent me on a mind spree about first lines and the reason you need–not a good one but–a great one.

Here it is.

You want people to read the book, right?

Think of it this way: your first line needs to propel the reader into the first paragraph. Your first paragraph needs to propel them through the first page. The first page, through the first chapter. And that first chapter? Through the first “section.” By then, they’ll know if they want to read the rest based on lots of different things about your writing and storytelling (including ends of chapters).

So, when editing you novel for eventual publication, this is where I think you need to concentrate some real effort: The first sentence. The first paragraph. The first page. The first chapter. The endings of chapters, especially the first several. The ending. As a novelist, you can never give as much attention to each sentence and word as you want to, and you would as a poet. But you can triage.

Here are my first lines, so far. (You can see, I am not the master of first lines, but I am trying.):

“Tow-headed Mikhail bent over the lifeless, flattened, bloodied chipmunk.” –Benevolent (2013)

“She had a perm. John didn’t know anything about those kinds of things, but he was surprised later to find out—when she came home one afternoon smelling of bitter plastic and fish—that what he had been running his fingers through and adoring splayed on his white, eyelet bed linen, was a ruse.” -The Family Elephant’s Jewels (2014)

“Cecily stood in the mud where the deep ruts crested at the side of the road and hardened into long, false hills, stony underneath but slick on the top.” or, from the forward, “Some call it the night of thieves and others call it the night of a hundred thieves.” –The Night of One Hundred Thieves (2014)

“Peter stood to the side, his fists shoved down into his hoodie pockets and his gaze wandering over the closest wall of the stairwell.” –Spin (draft)

“I would begin a story about me, Jonah, on the day that Mr. James came to stay with us.” –Frame 352 (draft)

“Her name was Mary. In her original life—at least, as far as Mary could ever tell, it was her original life—she was born in 1829.” The Marvelous Life of Mary McG (draft)

“The mess under Jimmy Bloum’s bed was thick and quite dusty.” –Rails (draft)

“The plan, for sixty years, was to drive off a coastal cliff in our car, clinging to each other in the front seat like Velcro monkeys.” The Last Book (draft)

 

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One thought on “Mind Your Firsts

  1. You have some pretty good first lines but I think I liked this one the most: “Peter stood to the side, his fists shoved down into his hoodie pockets and his gaze wandering over the closest wall of the stairwell.” -Spin (draft) It sounds really mysterious and I am a curious person. My second choice is: “The plan, for sixty years, was to drive off a coastal cliff in our car, clinging to each other in the front seat like Velcro monkeys.” The Last Book (draft) — because I like the image of “Velcro monkeys.”

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