Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Link Love and First Line Advice

First off, I have to point you in the direction of an awesome post by Lynn Viehl: Eff the Editing - in which she talks about the Editing Macarena. Stay tuned to her blog - she's doing a series of workshops this week for people who aren't attending RWA National.

Second, you have to read the interview Melissa Marr did over at The Fictionistas.

And on to the subject of today's post: First Lines.

It's a big subject around the blogosphere today, and I'm jumping on the bandwagon - not because everyone else is doing it, but because it's such a hot-button topic in the writing world.

What started this whole post was a series of posts Nephele Tempest is doing over at The Knight Agency's blog. Both posts in this series so far have been brilliant. Friday's post was how to write a killer first sentence. Today's was was not only about the importance of a first line, but some advice on the actual beginning of a novel. Great stuff.

Then I read Diana Peterfreund's post today (whose new blog is exceptional, btw) wherein she talks about first lines and points us in the direction of Scott Westerfield's blog and his take on the whole first line issue.

When I first started writing, I didn't think about my first line - whether it was grabby or zippy or told the reader X about the story. I just wrote it. I mean, after years of reading, I had a pretty good idea of how a book should start, and I went from there. Spectacle has now been through so many edits, I can't even remember what the original first line was. I thought it was good at the time, but I know I've changed it. (I think, actually, I moved it farther down the page and added some new detail above it.)

Then I started looking around the internet and gleaning advice from the various online sources. This, of course, sent me into paroxysms of terror about whether my first line was good enough. I learned to obsess about the first line of each book. I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-re wrote all my first lines until I was driving myself insane looking for the perfect opening to my stories. I've calmed down considerably since then, but I still understand the importance of the first line.

And the first few lines after that, and the first few pages after that.

The whole idea is to hook the reader. You have to hook him hard and keep him hooked. It starts with the cover blurb, of course, and we all know how important blurbs are. That's what gets the reader to pick up the book in the first place (or gets the agent to request pages, so eventually your book will get to the reader). Once he's got the book in his hot little hands, though, you need to hook him into the story with the first line. And then keep him hooked with every subsequent line after line.

So, let's look at some first lines - then and now.

First some great first lines from the classics:

- Howard Roark laughed. (The Fountainhead)
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984)
- It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451)
- Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow loveable. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)

Not the most famous three lines in literature, but no doubt you've already seen Pride and Prejudice's first line discussed at length, and of course, the most famous first line from Tale of Two Cities (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.) has been done to death. No. I picked the above three lines because each one does exactly what it's supposed to do. It hooks me and makes me want to read more.

Scanning through numerous classics as I was writing this post, I came to the realization that in the times those books were published, no one was paying much attention to grabby first lines. Alexandre Dumas' readers certainly didn't care; neither did Charles Dickens'. Each book of theirs I picked up had dry as dust opening lines, and they're still selling like hotcakes. Then I picked up Tom Sawyer, and discovered Twain didn't bother with the first line - he used the first several lines to paint the picture. Of course, the first several paragraphs are only a few words long, but you get the general idea of where the book is headed in those short lines. (Which goes back to the idea that you have more than the first line to hook a reader, but you better make it quick.)

Back then, however, there wasn't as much competition for publication, and readers didn't have a plethora of stories to choose from. It was read those few, or not read at all. Today is a different story. Which leads me to some more recent first lines:

- Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own. (Angels & Demons)
- Every night death came, slowly, painfully, and every morning Maddox awoke in bed, knowing he'd have to die again later. (The Darkest Night)
- Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour. (Patriot Games)
- My decision to become a lawyer was irrevocably sealed when I realized my father hated the legal profession. (The Rainmaker)

True, I picked only first lines that grabbed me, and the whole reason a book grabs an individual is purely subjective, but each of the above had something in it that made me want to read more (or makes me want to read more, which is why my TBR list now has a couple additions.)

And now, here are my current first lines (subject to change as the obsession strikes me):

Spectacle: "We're on in two."
Caldera: "This is ludicrous."
Blink: Sitting in the half-light shivering, the futility of her life assaulted her.
AWJ: On the plains of eastern Colorado, the town of Serenity was anything but serene.
RTL: “Congratulations, Miss Lind, you’re going to be a mother.”
Manhunter: As she approached the twisted Mercedes’ wreckage, its cracked side mirror winked at her like they shared some unspeakable secret.
And a preview of the previously unshared Nano: “I know you haven’t noticed lately, Edgar, but I am not a poodle."

As you can see, I'm not the Queen of First Lines, but I'm working on it. So, now I leave it to you. Do you obsess over your own first lines? What's a favorite first line from a book you've read, or if you want to post it here, what's a favorite first line you've written?


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