Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tips for Writing First Paragraphs

Figuring out how to start your story is one of the hardest challenges when you are revising your work. If you've been reading about publication trends, you've probably felt threatened by the importance of that first paragraph, how it is your only chance to win a reader over and get their attention. Without that perfect opening paragraph, publishing is hopeless! I'm sure this is true to some extent, but I wanted to share some less stressful advice on how to think about your novel first paragraphs.

I'm a staff editor for the online flash-dedicated SmokeLong Quarterly. (We had over 88,000 unique visitors to our site in 2008.) I'm also a regular at book stores and libraries, often perusing books I've never heard of before. When I approach a new story (our submission process keeps the authors anonymous) or a new book, rarely do I make any sort of decision based on the first paragraph. Titles matter. Covers matter. (I'm just being honest.) And, usually, I'll read three to five random paragraphs throughout the work to get a feel for the quality of the writing. That is to say, that I look at almost everything EXCEPT for that first paragraph. Why? Because the first paragraph has been given so much attention that it is sometimes misleading as to how an author writes and also because, at least to me, so many of them sound the same as writers try to introduce the character, the setting, the time, the conflict, all in a few sentences.

A few months ago, I had the extreme pleasure of having dinner with Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black and the young adult novel Kicks. Aside from serving some great food -- I particularly remember the beautiful cheese platter -- Janet gave me some great reassurance on writing the first paragraph, something that I admit to completely revising about seven hundred times. Janet said simply, Don't worry about telling the reader EVERYTHING. It's true. Isn't there something enticing about getting into a book slowly, uncovering the details of time and place and character piece by piece? What Janet said really took a lot of pressure off of me, and I was able to cobble together a first paragraph that I was much happier with than I had ever been before.

Another point I want to make about the first paragraph is that the first sentence and the "hook" are not necessarily the same thing. I've seen this get confused over and over again among writers. The hook for a book is more of a the short statement about the story that can be used to capture someone's attention. A girl watches her family from heaven after being killed and cut up into little pieces. A father tries to save his son in a post-apocalyptic world. These sentences get you attention, but they are not the first sentences of the works they describe. I think the term got confused when writers were trying to convey the idea of capturing a reader's interest with that first sentence. Of course one should strive to do that, but keep in mind that the sentence can be a snag rather than a hook. The one sentence doesn't have to inspire the reader to finish the whole book. It only has to get the reader to go to the next sentence, which should make the reader go to the next sentence, until they find themselves unwittingly led to that beautiful end of your story, something that is also challenging to write.

Lastly, you don't necessarily have to worry about perfecting your last paragraph until you have your story complete. This, of course, depends on your writing style. But, if you are like me, your story may evolve so much that what you thought you were writing about in the beginning isn't what you ended up writing about at the end. Your revision may consist of throwing away 30,000 words, just to pick a random number completely out of thin air. The beauty of revision is that you have 20/20 hindsight so that you can tailor your first paragraph to lead you most effectively to your last.

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