Wednesday, June 06, 2012

First Lines of Novels

I'm at that dreaded place again. Dreaded for me. Well, when I really think about it, it wasn't always a dreaded place. I think now that I have a modicum of success, the pressure adds more dread to....

Da-da-da-dum... The first line of a new book.

I know I could just get started, dive in, and figure out the first line/scene later, but thus far, books don't work like that for me. Wow. I've just realized it's true. I've written 8 or 9 full manuscripts and probably 4-5 other partials that I have yet to finish (and may never) and I have NEVER changed the opening of one of those books.

Sure, I edit and tweak--a lot. But that opening line, the way I see the beginning of the book, I've never once changed it. Have I? Sinead and Molly can correct me if I'm wrong. I did add a prologue to two of my unpublished manuscripts after the fact... but I've never completely cut an opening scene or completely rejected the opening line that first fell into my head.

I sometimes roll my eyes at authors who say that characters talk to them, or stories arrive from the ether and they (the authors) just transcribe... But I realize I need to take some of my eye rolling back. Because first lines come to me that way.

First lines are important. They draw the reader in. They set the tone. They raise questions.

I was at a great workshop with Donald Maass about 5 or 6 years ago during which he spent about 2 hours just reading out people's first lines, asking the group if they'd keep reading, and then we'd work as a group to find a better place/way for that author to start if their first line didn't work. Of the 40 or more first lines we looked at, I think mine was one of two that he and the group liked. I'm not bragging. Merely saying that these lines come to me like miracles from heaven and I'm not sure if I know how to start a book if the heaven's don't provide.

But I must. And I will. Every book I've written has developed differently (no process is my process) so maybe this will be the book where the first line/opening scene reveals itself later.

Or maybe my first line magic is used up... I have realized (with some trepidation) that in my last two completed manuscripts (the ones for Deviants and Chosen, the first two books of The Dust Chronicles) I open with a scene-setting line. Something that's considered in most circles to be a beginner mistake. (It was a dark and stormy night.) But I like the lines... I think that, while they do describe setting, they also create mood and pose questions, so I decided it was okay to break that no-description-in-your-first-line rule.

And now... in celebration of Deviants going into production and the ARCs being available at BEA this week--I hope they got them done in time--here is the opening paragraph of Deviants, coming October 30, 2012 from Amazon Children's Publishing:
The air at the uppermost reaches of Haven is hot and thick with the stench of rat droppings. Small price to pay for free food. Normal girls run screaming when this close to rats, but I can’t afford luxuries like fear.

And the original opening paragraph from my first draft:
The air at the uppermost reaches of Haven is hot and thick with the stench of rat droppings. Small price to pay for free food. Most teenaged girls would run screaming this close to rats but I’m not most girls. Not by half.

Not that different is it? OH, YIKES. Now I like the original better. Why did I do this?????? :)

And, first line gods... Please deliver onto me the first line for Glory. Book 3 of The Dust Chronicles.


Stephanie Doyle said...

Love it... your a first line magician!

But it was crazy - as a I was reading this... I realized I've never changed a first line either.

Never. Every other sentence can change but I never seem to touch that one.

The first line of my current WIP... Dying sucked.

Probably cliche, but probably going to be there come release day.

Anonymous said...

That is a great first line, and they are tricky, but you, generally don't change a ton about your books, structure, basic plot elements, turning points all basically remain the same.

I on the other hand have reworked first lines in every book and am still not satisfied..

Maureen McGowan said...

That's a great line, Steph.

I took the plunge yesterday and started the manuscript w/o a magic first line. Maybe this book will have a magic ending line? One can hope.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we overthink it. I usually go with the gut for that first line. I've taken an opening paragraph and worked it in workshops and I hated what I ended up with - my first beginning was my soul speaking.

Beth said...

i feel my beginnings are weak. I'm a rewriter. Always the beginning gets rewritten. :P

Eileen said...

One of my friends had the copy editor change her first line. It was her first novel. She called me in a total panic. I taught her all about "stet."

I do think first lines often come from a place of total magic. That said, I one time not only cut the first line, I cut the first 35 pages from a manuscript. I was totally in love with the scenes, but they were back story and didn't belong. Crushing.

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