Tuesday, 27 September 2011

First Lines Are Not Your Antagonist

[It is hard to know whether war or peace makes the greater changes in our vocabularies, both of the tongue and of the spirit.
~ MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, Revised Edition
It was mid-April when I got home from the offshore rig and discovered my good friend Leonard Pine had lost his job bouncing drunks at the Hot Cat Club because, in a moment of anger, when he had a bad ass on the ground out back of the place, he'd flopped his tool and pissed on the rowdy's head. 
~ Joe R Lansdale, Bad Chili
If you're listening to this I'm dead. 
~ Charlie Huston, My Dead Body
Jen Wu is a day Master Li sets aside for my literary endeavors, and I was pleased that it was cold and rainy and fit for little else than splashing ink around. 
~ Barry Hughart, The Story of the Stone

Have you heard this one before?

Hook your reader with the first line!
~ Darn near any writing teacher I have ever had

Sure, you can hook me with that first line, but then you have to reel me in. The thing about those first lines I quoted above is that they all display the voice of the novel they are in, they all (however delicately) take the foot off the brake and move it toward the accelerator, and they all make you ask.

The best first lines are the kind you actually see when you re-read the book. If the first line is so great, you won't even notice it on the first time through because it walks up behind you, wraps its arm around your shoulders and gently steers you downhill so convincingly you don't realize you're running until the last page.

We spend anywhere from 60-97% (math, not my strong suit) of our first writing session staring at the page, thinking up a brilliant first line. Unfortunately, if your book is 70,000 words long and your first sentence is 10 words, you have spent an insane amount of time on 0.00014% (I used a calculator) of your novel. Remember, your first line reels me in, so that remaining 99.99986% had better have a compelling voice, kick-ass characters, an epiphany or at least a red hot action scene and a plot that makes me turn the page.

Doesn't it make more sense to spend all that panic time developing your novel instead of trying to phrase the first handful of words so perfectly a certified saint would sin at first sight? (Also, alliteration? A little overrated.)

Let's go back to:

, and they all make you ask. 
~ Someone just discovered the blockquote button, seriously, how fun is this?
One of the most valuable pieces of information I have read from an editor is to keep the reader asking questions. (If you have read this too and actually remember the source material, please leave a comment. It's been years since I saw this but it obviously left a mark.) Make the reader ask a question with the first line - the reader has to keep reading to answer that question. Make the reader ask two questions on the first page, and every time you answer a question, make the reader ask another.


The reason we seek to satiate our curiosity is because of that marvelous feeling that satiety brings. If you don't satiate my curiosity in the first book of your series to a high enough degree, I'm not actually going to continue on to the second book. I have read number one volumes that felt like half a book. I have read closed series that answered every important hanging thread and guaranteed that I will come back for more. See My Dead Body above, and my purchase of Sleepless after I finished re-reading the entire Joe Pitt series (it's the kind of thing that requires re-enjoying).

Does that mean you need to spend 0.00014% of your time on the first line? No. You have to set up a question, establish a voice, and shift your heel off the pedal all in one sentence. On the other hand, that's what editing is for.

If you're really stuck on your first line and you can feel your writing time trickling through the blanks in your mind, start in the middle. Start in the end. Start somewhere. Just make sure you start writing now.

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