Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2011

First Lines

You probably think that this is going to be about how first lines are really, really important, and you want to make sure that your first line shines so that you can land an agent and an editor, and after all, readers are going to read your first line first and that will decide them on whether to buy your book or not. Well, it's not. I am sure that there are lots of reasons it's important to have a great first line. I've sat down myself and tried to write a series of great first lines to begin stories with. But in the last year or so, I've read about a dozen novels with great first lines that will never sell and that's why I'm writing this essay. Because I want to demysticize the great first line and get writers to focus on the whole book, not that one first line.

To start with, I'm going to list some first lines that are not particularly memorable from great novels that are:

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling: "Nigel came down the street toward her, his face shadowed with annoyance."

Shadow by KJ Parker: "He opened his eyes and looked down. He had no idea where he was."

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold: "I am afraid. Cordelia's hand pushed aside the drape in the third floor parlor window of Vorkosigan House."

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer: "Lisa is pregnant. Dad called us around 11 o'clock to let us know."

Blackout by Connie Willis: "Colin tried the door, but it was locked."

I will admit, there are loads of great first lines in novels that I love, but I think there are twice as many ordinary ones, and a pedestrian first line does not mean at all that the novel itself will be pedestrian, as well.

What a first line of a novel does is introduce us to a character, in an interesting situation, in a world in which that character will live for the rest of the novel. But it doesn't have to all be smashed into a first line. Or even into a first paragraph or first page.

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In The Wood Wife, this is the right first line because the annoyance of Nigel is what propels the novel's protagonist into a new life away from him, and focused on herself and her own creativity rather than his. It is about a woman's experience with art, and how a woman envisions herself as an artist apart from as a woman.

In The Shadow, the story is about a character who has amnesia and spends the whole novel figuring out who he is. It's not a gimmick. It's everything that the novel is, and the author spends lots of time letting the protagonist and the reader be misdirected one way or another. It's fun and it's frustrating, and the book takes its own sweet time figuring itself out, which is just the way it should be.

In Barrayar, Bujold breaks one of the supposedly cardinal rules about storytelling. She tells us what the character is feeling rather than showing us in action or dialog. But it works, because this is a character who is a new situation, and who is newly afraid. She is afraid because she finally has people in her life she cares enough to be afraid about. She is going to be a mother for the first time, and this is fear on a level that does not compare to combat, which she has experienced before. It is also a novel about the very specific place of Vorkosigan House, which is introduced here as a fairly ordinary place.

In LAWKI, an apocalypse is imminent, but apocalypse stories should always begin with the normal life of the main characters. Why? Because apocalypse means nothing unless we know first what will be lost. Beginning writers are frequently given the advice to start with action, but I think this is often (perhaps always) wrong. I have frequently made the mistake myself as a writer starting the novel too late in the action. In fact, the action of a novel only makes sense and has meaning to the reader if it has first shown all that has gone before. When a TV show or a movie begins with a character dying horribly, I always think what a lost chance that was to make us care about a character. And LAWKI is a perfect novel in the way that it slowly, inch by inch, shows the decay of life after a catastrophic event. Each journal entry, you think nothing can get worse, and each entry it does, little by little.

In Blackout, the novel begins with the problem of a locked door, and in fact, the whole story is about locked doors. People go places, but they can't come back. It is also a frustrating novel, because no one knows what is happening until the very last chapter. It's also a metaphor for life itself, for the locked doors we come up against and what we do while we are locked in, locked out, or locked away from each other. But it's also just a locked door. It is the beginning of telling the reader about the world Colin is in, what he wants, and what he intends to do to get it, which is where all good stories begin.

We don't have to know everything all at once. Connie Willis feels perfectly confident in her ability as a writer to tell us what we need to know in all good time, and that is part of what makes her such a great writer. She knows that a first line is just a first line. It's not an advertisement for the story. It is part of the story, the first part, the music, so to speak, that begins the movie, the establishing shot.

Yes, you know that agents will look for an excuse to write a rejection. Editors, too. But mostly, my experience has been that they are looking for gross errors in that first page. They are looking for you to have multiple typos (some editors may reject you for one on the first page, but I doubt it). They are looking for grammatical errors that make it impossible to figure out what is going on (they aren't trying to trap you like an English teacher waiting for you to mistake lie/lay). They are looking for you to show them that you can't write cleanly and that you aren't going to tell them a story. Honestly, they are looking for a sign that this is drivel, a tirade, or something that could not possibly be sold. They aren't looking for you to take too long to introduce a complex character and situation. Really, they aren't.

A good first line won't hurt you, you think. Right? It's going to prove how brilliant you are, and then you'll have a chance to tell the story at length. Well, maybe.

Problem number 1 with the good first lines I've been seeing lately:

They have nothing to do with the rest of the story. Sure, the first line is a zinger, but then it turns out the rest of the story is about a completely different character, or takes a turn and ends up being about something else. Or they're just a flash in the pan, and the character doesn't keep up that attitude throughout the novel. It may actually be impossible to keep up that attitude in the rest of the novel. You may not want to read about a character who is like that for the rest of the novel.

Problem number 2 with these great first lines:

They end up leading the author into a situation which is impossible to get out of. You set up this really intriguing premise, and then you don't know where to go. It's too complicated and you're not skilled enough to use a line like that and have it make sense. So the story is a murky mess or is simply nonsensical. Somehow, you think that keeping up that level of suspense must be carried through for the whole novel, and nothing is ever revealed that helps resolve the tension of the novel and the characters never do anything that makes any sense. Maybe some avant garde publishers want novels like that, but I don't and I don't think most readers do, either.

Voice is the most important thing a writer can have, you've been told. And that voice should be apparent in every line of the novel you write. OK, yes, voice is important. But what is voice? Voice is the thing that makes you you. You don't have to figure out what your voice is going to be. You already have it. It's what makes you interested in the stories that you are interested in. It's what makes you write about certain characters. It's the way that you turn the plot because when you are in charge of the universe, it works in a particular way. It isn't the turn of phrase that you worked at for a thousand years to make it sound as poetic as Shakespeare does now. Shakespeare is five hundred years old. He sounds that way because he's old, not because he has voice. Sound like you, and that's all that you need to do. Sound like you when you are being as clear as you can be. Sure, you can be poetic if that's the way you have to tell your story, because your story is poetic. But don't try so hard to be someone else.

I love a great first line as much as any other reader, but I don't buy books based on a first line because it can be a trick and I don't like to be tricked. I don't see movies based on the trailers, either. You know how trailers have all the best stuff in them, and often are better than the movie that they come from? Well, that's the way it can be with first lines or first chapters, even. I find that I have to read about 50 pages to decide if the book is worth reading. But in a pinch, I will download the free sample of a book as an ebook and go from there. The first line isn't enough, any more than the cover or title is enough to get me to buy a book.

The real problem with those great first lines is that you as an author are mistaken about what your job is. Your job is not to be that kind of magician, the one that promises to do tricks that no one has ever done before. At least, I don't think that's your job. I don't care about those kinds of magicians. Because, honestly, at this point, no magician is doing something I haven't seen before. No author is, either. Your job as an author is to tell the story well, to do your honest best for the story you've been given.

Like Michelangelo, you have a stone and you chip away at it until the true story underneath is revealed. Every layer of revision that you do gets you a little closer to that true story that is hidden, waiting for you. The first line isn't something that you start writing at. It's what you get to, when your story is already finished and perfect. Then you know what your first line is going to be, not before then. Trying to cheat and get to it faster is just going to end up breaking the marble and ruining your potential masterpiece.

So, once you know what your story is, once it is fully revealed and ready for an editor, that's when you think about first lines. But you don't stress over it. You don't need to twist the timeline of the story around so that you have a perfect first line. You can choose to, if it makes sense to start that way, but don't be annoying about it. Don't think that you tell some joke to start things off with, or that you use the best part of your novel at the beginning. The best part of your novel should be the climax, and I recommend that you leave it there. It won't make any sense taken out of context and it shouldn't.

Tell the story like a strip tease. Fully clothed and very ordinary to begin with, slowly revealing more and more of the secrets beneath. A first line is only one line. It's not the be all or end all of a book. A quiet first line may be the right first line. A description can work. A bit of dialog. A curse word.

I think one of the real problems for writers is that there is so much advice out there on what to do and what absolutely not to do that we forget that it's our story, and that people are paying, in the end, to read about our fantasies, to read about the way we think and feel, the characters we love and hate. They aren't paying to read a book that has every greatest part of every great novel ever written. They can get CliffsNotes for that. They are paying to read a book that only you can write, that has your unique stamp on it. And you aren't going to find that following a bunch of rules. You're going to find that by writing and rewriting and throwing everything out and starting over again. And finally, finally, finding the right order for everything. It may be completely different from everything else. It may be just a little different. But it's you.

Don't write a first line for someone else. Write it for yourself. Write the first line that comes naturally to you and your story. And then write the next perfect line for that story. And don't let anyone tell you that it needs to grab the reader more. If there's something wrong with your story, it's not the first line. If the story is right, the first line will be, too.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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