I think that most readers (readers who are non-writers, anyway) take for granted the beauty of a great first line. Unless it’s just crazy famous like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” or “Call me Ishmael,” most people don’t even remember what the first line of a book was by the time they come to the end. I’ll even say most people don’t remember what the first line was by the time they come to the second line. Ouch.
But still, that magical first line is all important. A good first line will give you a taste of the genre, the time, the setting, the mood, the main character and the voice. A great first line will manage to sum up the entire struggle or premise of the story without telling you that’s what it’s doing. First lines are hard.
I’ve been struggling with mine for some time now. I had one that I loved – truly loved – but it turned out that I was starting my book in the wrong place, so the first line had to go. (I actually just moved it later and turned it into a bit of dialogue. I couldn’t bear to part with it.) And ever since I moved my opening to a more appropriate place, I can’t quite recapture the feeling of that original first line. Maybe it means I’m not starting in the right place again. Maybe it means that I’m not embracing the big picture of my novel early enough. Or maybe it means I’m putting too much pressure on myself to come up with a great first line.
So that’s my current struggle. Anyone out there have a first line tip to share? Or a first line that inspires you? Let’s hear it!
Last night I was catching up on Project Runway, and Tim Gunn said (and I’m pretty sure he was looking at me), “You have to step back objectively and ask yourself the tough questions.” How he knew that I’d just gotten my editor’s notes back and needed to hear this particular bit of advice, I don’t know. But need it I did, and there it was. Tim Gunn telling me to “make it work.”
So… the notes. This whole hiring-an-editor thing has been an unexpected journey. I didn’t know quite what to expect to begin with, so I can’t really judge its merit that way. But I can say it was so worth it. Truly, every penny and every second. I have learned (and AM learning) so much; things I didn’t even realize I needed to learn. It’s a humbling process for sure, but when I set my ego and my pre-existing ideas of what my story is aside … it’s actually quite liberating.
The thing I learned most is that I’ve been holding back. Holding back with my story, with my plot stakes, with my characters, with everything. I’ve been “dipping my toes in” as my editor says. And he’s absolutely right. I bring my characters to the edge of danger, to the edge of discovery, to the edge of conflict … and they narrowly escape. Every time. Not only is it too coincidental that information just pops up when my MC needs it, but it’s not interesting to read. I knew all of these things before; I can recognize these problems in other people’s writing, but I had these ideas of what was going to happen in my story (and what wasn’t going to happen) and that was it. So weird. Weird and not interesting.
So today starts the re-writes. And let me tell you – my characters better be on the lookout. ‘Cause my toe-dipping days are over. I am ready to dive.