Posts Tagged ‘First line of Novels’

Welcome to this week’s Craft Post. Last week we started a brand new series on the topic of first drafts. Unlike with my Worldbuilding series, I have the whole series broken down into five sub-series which you can find by clicking on the First Drafts link in the toolbar. The first sub-series is on writing the first draft and later get into some other areas of thing that can better help you prepare to write your first draft and things to keep in mind while writing. You can find all posts for this sub-series (insert link to First Draft page), which was tips on preparing. Today is all about first lines.

Go grab some of your favorite books from off your shelves. For those part of a series grab the first book. Open to the first chapter or if there is an intro or prologue. Read only the first sentence. How is it? Does it grab you right away? Is it anything like some of these classics?

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

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)

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851) American Book Review: 100 Best First Lines from Novels.

Great right? Do you want to read any of these books now based on that first line? So may. Others not. You know why these lines are so great? Or why the first line of your favorite books are good to you? Because everything that follows is just as good and better. There is a huge idea that your first line needs to be epic and meaningful. It should be beautifully crafted. If you read the ones above they are. If I went and started one my novels like Moby Dick and changed the name from Ishmael to Todd, will that make my book opening line be just as great?

Clearly not, Herman Melville wrote one of the best classic books of all time. Also, everything that came after my opening line will determine if that line was great or horrible or somewhere in between. What makes a good opening line is that when you finish the book you can’t imagine it starting any other way. While some might believe, and I include myself in this two years ago that the opening line should be good, the rest of the story is just as important as that first line.

“But Tim, isn’t it true that agents and editors turn down authors based on the first few pages?”

The answer is yes. Some even by the first line. I can’t remember what agent said they have turned down an author based on the first word. What you need to know about agents and publishers is they have so many manuscripts int their slush pile that they have developed little tricks that help them know if the book is good. Was the grammar bad, or was the first sentence is confusing or bad? Did they even care about what was going on after the first page? Every agent and editor are different, and each has their own tricks.

“Then we should really take the time to make sure our first lines are perfect.”

Yes and No. When it comes to first drafts one of my tips from the first post was is get it written. That is the focus of the first draft. Spending several hours or days on the first line is just not a great way of spending the opening days of starting your first draft. I did that when I started the first draft for Seeing Through the Veil. I had just read The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke. It was a great book and got me a little to focused on that part of my novel. I recommend reading it after your first draft is done. I wasted a month of trying to make sure my first fifty pages were great so I had little polishing to do on them in the second draft. I ended up stopping and not pick up the book for two more months.

First drafts are to get it written. Once it is written then you know what is happening, even if you outline having an outline and fleshing it into a full-length book is different. For some, there are probably outliners out there that they know every step and all writing is making it more visual. Once you know what is happening you are better prepared to spend more time on your first line. However, don’t worry about making your opening line great like some of the ones I posted above. You don’t decide if it is on par with those lines. The readers do.

That’s all I got today, check back next week for the next post called The First Chapter. Be sure to catch my Weekly Writing Wrap-up on Monday’s as well.