Thursday, October 14, 2010

Firsts. Perhaps a Re-examining is in Order

1. Call me Ishmael. - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

3. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

4. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

5. I am an invisible man. - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

6. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

7. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. - Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

8. For a long time, I went to bed early. - Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913; trans. Lydia Davis)

9. It was a pleasure to burn. - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

10. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. - Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

I took these from a site that listed the 100 best first lines from novels.

So, you are writing a novel. A short story. Something fiction. You must have a first line. Do you panic? Do you just write it and not care? Do you run around reading blog posts and writing books about first sentences? First paragraphs? First pages? First chapters? First novels? Do you freak out about firsts?

I think many of us worry so much about these firsts because we feel we must snag an agent or publisher with them. Everything hangs on them. Our queries must be perfect. Our partials must be perfect.

Well, let me tell you something. After judging entries in college for the literary journal, and then for Genre Wars, and then my own short story contest, and then Notes from Underground, I can honestly say that I don't think writers should worry so much about those dreaded firsts. As a reader judging entries for publication, I don't open up the entry, read the first line or paragraph, and just stop or move on from there. I always keep reading. I read until I get a sense of what the writer's style is, how strong of a writer they are, if the story is headed anywhere interesting (to me!). It differs for every piece, but I can tell within the first few minutes of reading (or hour if I'm reading a novel) whether or not the piece is going to work for me. It has nothing to do with the first sentence or paragraph - it is everything pulling together. And more often than not, I will read the entire piece before making a decision.

What writers, including myself, should worry about is telling a good story. If the first line is vague, it doesn't matter. It won't end up on the 100 best first lines of the century. So what? Actually, I think all those great first lines up there aren't up there because the lines are so fantastic so much as the stories themselves are fantastic.

Besides, if you put so much darned effort into your firsts and not the same amount of effort into the rest of your story, you're going to have problems with the rest of the story. I've read one too many of these examples. Great, fantastic, blow-me-away first lines and paragraphs and pages, but then it all falls apart from there. This may partly be why many writers get requests for fulls from partials only to receive rejections.

And trust me, I've been through the first-trauma myself one too many times. It has only been lately that I've realized I need to stop worrying so much about it.


  1. Michelle, thanks for Juxtaposing this list with your post, because as I look at those supposedly great first lines, very few of them are any good without having read more of the story. Some of them, in fact, are downright boring if you have no context.

    For instance, I've never read Invisible Man and don't know a whole lot about it. That first line is a snooze.

    Sometimes, the context doesn't help. I've read Swann's Way. That first line, standing on it's own, is the essence of Meh.

    It's only by reading on that most of these have their impact. Which I hadn't put quite so clearly together until you structure this post as you did.

    So thanks! That actually takes a huuuuuuuuge weight off my shoulders.

  2. I spend hours each week reading very new YA fiction, trying to choose our school library's books of the month. To me, although the very first line doesn't matter much, the first few pages do. I can assure you that if a kid isn't hooked into something about the book by the end of about a page and a half, the kid will not read the book unless s/he's assigned to -- and often not even then. Sir Walter Scott's style of not starting the plot until about 60 pages into the book does not work with kids. In fact, it doesn't work too well with non-English major type adults, either.
    So, while it's all find and good for literary types whose intended audience is comprised of other literary types not to worry as much about the first few paragraphs, my opinion is that writers whose intended audience is the ordinary rank and file of humanity do indeed need to make sure that SOMETHING in that very beginning really grabs the reader.

  3. I did a similar post on my blog, but about first chapters. I think, because everything is subjective, the first line, the first chapter, the first whatever really doesn't matter because . . . somebody, somehwere is going to think that first whatever is great, and somebody, somewhere is going to think that first whatever, well, stinks!

    So, all I can do is the best I can do - first line, first chapter, first whatever - and hope, well, for the best.

    Great post.


  4. I read similarly. I'm willing to deal with the first line, first few pages not being dazzling if the story as a whole is pretty good. I have one story I pushed halfway through before deciding the story, and the writer's style was just not for me. In my own writing I am not so worried about the first line, but I do want my first chapter to get the reader's attention.

  5. Great post on why NOT to worry about the firsts. When it's all said and done, it truly IS about the story. Just write a great story.

  6. Nevets: Glad I could help!

    Paperback: Oh, I agree with you, I really do! I'm NOT saying that the first line/paragraph/pages don't need to be a hook or interesting. I'm just saying that as WRITERS we need to not put so much of our time and effort and worrying on just those firsts. If the story works as a complete whole, those firsts will fall into place, guaranteed, and any reader, younger or older, will be able to tell if they'll like the book within those first few pages.

    I just don't like the idea of these first things feeling and being so disconnected from the work as a whole. If that makes sense.

    Scott: It's extremely subjective, I agree! You should put a link here to your post.

    Rayvenne: I think it's important to give the work a little bit of a chance even if you're not pulled in right away, but like Paperback says above, many young readers simply won't do this - and who can blame them? Especially who aren't as patient as readers who love more slow, literary reads.

    I think it's extremely important to have a hook at the beginning, of course, but I do think that if the writer is doing a good job as a storyteller, then the beginning will naturally draw the reader in or it won't - depending on what the reader likes. It won't be just because the beginning was written only as a hook.

  7. Christie: Yeah, that's the essence of what I'm trying to say. I think the firsts will fall into place if the writer is focusing on the story as a whole and not disconnecting it all from each other.

  8. The original first line/paragraph of my novel was:
    "Bloody hell."

    The editor wanted me to change it. Now it's "Marlen stood before the old brick museum, breathing rapidly in the chilled night air. He needed to find a way to break in."

    While agreeing with the editor on 95% of her other suggested changes, this is one I like less and less over time, and I prefer the original version. But, too late now.

    In other words, not only should you not fret over your first line/paragraph when you should be working more on the whole story, you should also not fret over it because an editor is likely to change it anyway. And a whole lot of other stuff, to boot.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  9. Mizmak: Ah, excellent, excellent point! I like your original first line better, too. This is why I self-published CINDERS. I didn't want anything changed at all unless I personally wanted it changed. I think this makes it easier for me to hand MONARCH over to an editor and be okay with changes she suggests. I may change my feelings about that when it happens. We will see. :)

  10. Michelle - here's the link:

  11. Michelle, This is great: "Actually, I think all those great first lines up there aren't up there because the lines are so fantastic so much as the stories themselves are fantastic."

    I think all of the first sentences were chosen AFTER the chooser was aware of the whole book. That's a very thing than when you first discover a story. The first line of a story may or may not be excellent. It's hard to tell without knowing the rest of it.

    I've taken a lot of pressure off myself regarding first lines. There's a little bit of pressure to make the first paragraph interesting, but I've stopped worrying about things like "hooks".

  12. My favorite first line has always been:

    The bear's name was State o' Maine.

    That's from John Irving's Hotel New Hampshire, a great book.

    I try for a hook within the first paragraph but I don't really stress over it. If the story is good enough, the reader will stay. If not, then all the clever tricks in the world won't help.

    Excellent post.

  13. I will agree with Paperback only so far as to say that the first thing that happens in a book has to get the reader's attention. Something has to happen.

    Also, I sneer at the phrase "literary types whose intended audience is comprised of other literary types" because that is just a misrepresentation of both literary fiction and those who read it. Something has to happen in literary fiction, just as it has to happen in all fiction. I shake my literary fist at you, Paperback Writer. Watch it.

  14. Davin: I've taken a lot of pressure off myself to have hooks as well. I really like what Chuck says down below"

    If the story is good enough, the reader will stay. If not, then all the clever tricks in the world won't help.

    THAT is what I think I was after in this post. Tricks. I hate that a "hook has to feel like a trick."

    You know? If the story is going to catch a reader's attention and the writer has told that story well (that would include making something happen in the beginning, of course, because stories should be about something happening), the rest is subjective. I don't want a reader to pick up my book because I tricked them into it with a fancy hook.

    Chuck: Excellent point about not all the tricks in the world helping. I agree! I talked about you above. :)

    Scott: I'm afraid Paperback picked that tone up in my post. I didn't mean it to come out that way, but I think it can be interpreted that way - but what I was saying is that as a judge for entries, I always keep reading. That's in my second-nature to keep reading. It's probably not second-nature for young readers to keep reading, though.

    Yes, I agree that something has to happen. Of course it does. I just don't think it has to be done disconnected from the rest of the story or with some fancy trick like I talked about up above.

  15. Can I just beg to differ for a moment? A small, dissenting voice. I see what you're saying and loved your argument, but, at the conference I went to in September, an editor emphasized the importance of the first sentence and the 2nd sentence. If she doesn't like the first sentence, she will never get to the 2nd. If she doesn't like the 2nd, she will not get to the 3rd, and so on. There's a point where, if she loves the premise and the writing, she will overlook some things but the overall piece has to be strong.

    Right now I'm stressing over this and would love for there not to be so much pressure on my first sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, but I believe the reality of finding an agent and an editor requires me to hook them right up front and keep them interested by delivering on those promises I make in the first sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter.

  16. Lois: Of course you can differ! I see what you're saying, but I must argue that if I hate a first sentence that badly it's probably because it wasn't written well. If the 2nd and 3rd and 4th sentences aren't written well, either, it probably means there are much, much larger problems with the work than the first sentences/paragraph and of course the agent would put it down.

    I honestly think all this talk about first sentences is really about something larger - writing well. If you're a good enough writer to get an entire novel out and have it work, your first sentence will work. If the entire book is excellent except those first few sentences or paragraphs, that would be very strange.

    See, here is where I don't think you have to worry. You say it right here: "but I believe the reality of finding an agent and an editor requires me to hook them right up front and keep them interested by delivering on those promises I make in the first sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter."

    If you truly believe that, then yes, your first sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter MUST be a hook and they MUST be good and deliver. Yes. That means the rest of the book MUST be good and deliver. If it does then obviously the first part will, too. See? It's all connected. This is why I believe a writer must put the same amount of emphasis on the entire work and not emphasize the beginning so much.

  17. Lois: Also, the way I see it, you said the agent said this:

    There's a point where, if she loves the premise and the writing, she will overlook some things but the overall piece has to be strong.

    So what I'm hearing here is that ALL the writing needs to be good, not just the first parts of the story. It really isn't about the first sentence at all - the way I'm seeing it.

  18. Michelle: Oh, I'm just cranky and twitchy and lately oversensitive about disparaging comments regarding literary fiction.

    Paperback Writer: I'm just cranky and twitchy and I do apologize. I understand that adolescents are likely not going to read for the beauty of language. When I was 15 I would never have picked up Proust. "This is just about some dumb French guy trying to fall asleep," I'd have said. "Duh."

    Lois: I'm willing to bet that the editor was talking more about bad writing than anything else. Most of the unpublished novels agents and editors see are going to stay forever unpublished because the writing is just awful. If someone can put together a readable paragraph, they're already ahead of the competition. I know that if the first sentence or two of something are either bad writing or just plain stupid, I won't want to read the rest of it. But that's really not the same thing, I don't think, as the idea that we have to have some sort of first line that will move Heaven and Earth.

    And, as Alex says, your first line might well change anyway.

  19. Scott: I get a bit ruffled at comments regarding literary fiction in any negative light whatsoever. I probably shouldn't, but I do.

  20. So I was curious, and at lunch I randomly pulled a bunch of best-selling mass market fiction novels off my book shelves and looked at how they started. Summary findings:

    1) Almost every one of them actually started with a prologue and/or an introduction. Heh. Some of those were insanely tedious and boring background and context creation. (Jurassic Park was the worst offender.)

    2) Almost every first line did little more than what Alex's editor had him do: establish the setting and foreshadow the action in a succinct, dry fashion.

    3) A bare handful started out with something like a hook, and most of those were extremely trite. (Cussler's Atlantis rising: "The intruder came from beyond").

    4) None of them would have passed most of the tests of muster and how to start a book according to conventional wisdom, the internet, and writers' conferences. No hook. The real plot didn't start within the first 5 to 10 pages. Used prologues, prefaces, and introductions.

    They were, simply put, well-written and interesting enough for countless people to read.

  21. Well said.

    What is the use of one excellent sentence when it is lost in a sea of mediocre stories?


  22. Michelle, I agree that, if the book is really well written, it would be highly unlikely for the first few sentences to be bad. I'm just focused right now on the whole hook 'em early mantra.

    Scott, I hope you're right. It's a lot of pressure for my 6 little words to withstand.

  23. Lois, the hook mantra is far too stressful for me. Good luck!

  24. Thank you Nevets. And Michelle. What actually sells most books isn't first sentences. It's concept. All those people didn't buy Dan Brown's books because of his perfect sentences.

    I also agree that it's much more important that you don't open with a misused word (or apostrophe!) or give a weather report than you write the most startling, original sentence of all time.

    And don't agonize if the book isn't even finished yet. The first sentence should be the last sentence you write.

  25. I've been feeling a lot of pressure on my first lines (my first chapters as well) and this post comes as a breath of fresh air. As a reader, I've never stopped reading after one sentence and usually not after one page. I like to think that readers give more effort than six or seven words.

  26. There's no way to say this without sounding pompous. If you even think you might be able to understand my books after the first sentence, my book is going to be over your head.

    And I like it that way.

  27. Nevets: Yes, that makes my point. The books are still ABOUT something, right? Stuff happens, right? The writing is good, and obviously the books sell. That should say something.

    Misha: Hah, yeah. I must admit I've written many mediocre sentences. Some might even think my first lines are mediocre. Oh well.

    Lois: I think it's great you're worrying about the hook. Like Domey, though, it's extremely stressful. I think if self-publishing Cinders taught me anything at all, it was to trust my gut and just write instead of fish. I know you and I know you're also making sure your entire story is good. :)

    Anne: Concept, I must agree, sells most published books. It is more difficult, I think, to sell a concept to an agent because the writing must be up to par as well.

    Crimey: I don't think you have much to worry about. You sure hooked me in what you sent me awhile ago!

    Nevets: You can sound pompous. Hehe, no worries. :)

  28. I agree with you in principle (on principle? Whatever). And I absolutely agree that one doesn't need to spend an inordinate amount of time on that first sentence. There's such a thing as editing your prose to death, IMO.

    If the first line is grammatically correct, I'll keep reading (I have stopped right at the first/second lines of books that mangled the English language so badly I couldn't bear read further). But I think the first line does set the general tone for the whole book...and I do prefer one that propels me into a scene, rather than coaxing me gently to keep reading.

    Just personal preference, of course.

  29. I think that the first line of a novel should foreshadow the ending, but that's just me. And there's no way a reader will know it's foreshadowing until they get to the ending. So. Huh. Hey, look: coffee!

  30. Jamie: I can see the personal preference in that, yes! I think it's important that the first sentence sets the intended tone for the book, absolutely. Then you really do know what you're getting into.

    Scott: I've never thought of it that way, but I can see where you're coming from. I'm not sure I've managed to pull that off in any of my books yet.

  31. @Scott - Yeah, I actually usually give away the ending the in my first sentence or two. The rest of the book is essentially explaining the conclusion to the reader that the reader didn't even really know that had gotten.

  32. Scott,
    Your condescending little fist-shaking is nasty and uncalled for. You assume your superiority of knowledge over me. You have no idea what my literary background is.
    Hence, to return your nastiness, I wave my literary degrees in my fist and tell you to read Beckett, Alasdair Gray, James Joyce, AL Kennedy, and James Kelman. The read the circular action in Lessing.
    And that's a good start for a Saturday morning.
    I am not impressed with your condescending tone. How do you intend to keep blog readers if you act like that when you disagree with someone? I've taught 8th graders who could disagree less childishly. I obviously hit a nerve with you.
    Well, don't worry; I'll not trouble your silly little fist again. Fortunately, your two blog co-hosts seem to be more able to handle a variety of opinions. And all I offered was an opinion, not a critique of how you personally write.

  33. Paperbackwriter, I won't presume to speak for Scott, but I will say, for my own part, I took what he said not as condescension towards you so much as tongue-in-cheek defensive snarking after what felt (at least to me) like condescension from you towards literary readers and writers. From what I sit, it seems like a bunch of misunderstandings thrown together with a lot of strong personality.

    FWIW, which may be less than $0.02. :)

  34. Paperback Writer: Well, this is unfortunate. But you did claim some sort of difference between "literary types" and "ordinary rank and file" readers, and you inferred that nothing happens in the beginnings of "literry type" fiction, and that nobody enjoys literary classics outside academia. This is a serires of false claims and I said so and I will keep shaking my fist at people who make those claims. I apologized earlier in case I misread you, but I don't think I did misread you. I will apologize for the "fist shaking" line because you find it offensive; I will say that on this blog we use the line "I shake my fist at you" fairly often but it was foolish of me to think you'd be aware of our semi-private jokes.

    I assume nothing about you. You made claims that are false no matter how common they are, and I said so. Your literary background has no bearing on the veracity of your claims. I didn't compare our educations; I disagreed with some of your statements. You respond by calling me nasty and childish. The irony meter goes off the scale.


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