Thursday, June 9, 2011
It's a Start: The First Line
Several years ago, I was sitting in a room with a bunch of other writers at the Surrey International Writers Conference. We were all waiting for agent Donald Maass to begin his workshop on creating tension in our writing. He walked in, asked someone in the audience for the first page of their manuscript, and read the first line. Then he asked one of the scariest question you can ask.
By show of hands, how many people want to hear the second line?
That session was an eye-opening experience for me, and it prepared me for what I would learn the rest of the conference. If it wasn't for that conference, I wouldn't have come home and written the book that became my debut novel (The Shifter)
Why did this have such an effect on me? Because it really drove home how critical those first lines can be. The lines that started with something terrible happening, or someone is dire straits, got very few hands. It completely blew away the old idea to "start with a bang." The lines that were funny, and the lines that offered something intriguing got the most hands every time.
What I took away from this is that curiosity wins. If you can make your reader curious about what you've written, they'll stay with you. A strong opening line will do that. It's often what sells your book, as both readers and agents judge your work on the first line the next few paragraphs after that. Fail to intrigue and hook them in those early sentences (those dreaded 250 words you hear about all the time), and they'll likely put the book down and move on. Pique their curiosity, and they'll keep reading.
That first year at Surrey, my opening line was: She had to find the boy.
I was too scared to offer it up, so I never found out how many hands I would have gotten, but based on the number of rejections I got for that book, the hands would surely have been few.
After I got home, I worked on a new story, determined to take what I'd learned and write something that would pass the hand test. I had a new story idea, I knew my opening scene, knew the first chapter, but I didn't have that first line. It took me weeks of thinking before I got it.
The first line of The Shifter is: Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken.
It just felt right. I never got to do the hand test with it, but I get comments on it all the time from readers and reviewers. I'd like to think the hands would certainly have gone up.
What's the first line of your current project?
Stuck on your first line, or your first chapter? Maybe one of these articles can help get your started.
The First 250 Words of Your Manuscript
Seven Deadly Sins (If You're a First Chapter)
Writing the First Line of Your Novel
Overcoming False Starts in Your First Chapter