Wednesday, July 21, 2010

First Lines: It was the best of 'lines,' it was the worst of 'lines'.

When you first meet someone, or even less than meet --encounter-- a stranger, what do they tell you?

Sure the first words are usually, "Hi!" or "Hello" or if it is customer service, "May I help you?" Although I find less and less that customer service has anything to do with helping me and more about helping the service they represent, but that's another story.

Driving home today along our quiet little residential street, I 'encountered' a man on a bicycle. What did he tell me? Without an opportunity for conversation -- me in my van, he on his bicycle -- he told me quite a bit. I recognized him as a neighbor who seemed to have few boundaries. This was the man who decided to comandeer my garbarge bin, fill it with his own assorted cans of paint and other disallowed hazardous materials and set it out to the curb in front of MY house. Luckily we caught his duplicity and unloaded the contraband near his own trash can. My tight smile as greeting today probably told him that I hadn't forgotten the incident. The fact that I waved (half heartedly) and he acknowledged it and me with a nod, tells me that we are not enemies -- yet.

His shiny silver metalic sweat suit told me that he was attempting (again) to lose weight and his dark locks (not a  gray hair in sight) gave me the idea that perhaps there was a new 'love' in his life or someone he wished to 'love.' His ear buds and the dangling wires told that he was not in the mood for conversation with anyone.

The opening line of a book should be as informative as a brief encounter. It should invite you to want to know more, unlike my neighbor. Often the first line introduces something you have in common, or a common event. People you meet at an accident often establish a bond immediately. Or standing in a checkout line and you overhear a conversation that has you itching to join in. Or you see a couple in a doctor's office and read by their body language just how serious the visit is and you feel their pain.

At the least, the novel's opening should prepare the reader for what is to come.

Finding the right opening line is alot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One may be too big, too small, or just right. In the book "Tom Sawyer in Hell" by Peter Black he writes: "I had it made."

Too short. Do you really care why he thinks he had it made? After the second sentence do you feel invited in or are you already tossing the book aside? "I graduated from a competitve science/math high school, aced the PSATs, SATs, and had an A- cumulative average." What may possibly make you read further is the strange title of "Tom Sawyer in Hell." Yet that opening does not sound like any Tom Sawyer Mark Twain ever knew.

But then, you might argue, short can work. The shortest line of scripture springs to mind: "Jesus wept." Yeah, even if it is Jessica or Morris or Satan who wept, I want to know why, what caused the tears, what's the story?

In Roslyn Paterson's novel "Overtures" she writes: "Fiona walked out of the bustling train station in West Berlin and scanned around her for the signs directing her to Checkpoint Charlie, the portal into another world, and another time, which was Communist East Germany."

Too long. She gives us information. Who, what, where, and maybe a little glimpse of 'time travel.'  But does it invite you in? She also demonstrated that she could use another edit for tighter writing. The setting is somewhat intriguing. The second line tells a rather mundane description of her holding her passport and standing in line. I'm not curious, are you? And yes, yes, too long can work. So why isn't this one working?

What about: "I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods."

Ahhhhh. Just right. I want to read the next line. It is a negative. Writing instructors include in their long lists of dos and don'ts that one should not write in the negative. It is harder to understand. The author must have missed class that day.

"I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me."

I am not one who chooses to read about gods, myths, sorry old women, yet I am almost unwillingly reading on. There's a mystery in these few lines. There is a person who draws me in to hear her story. Have you ever seen a face and immediately thought, "What a life they must have had!" This old woman is giving me that kind of thought. Just let me read another line or two.... But this author is a pretty crafty fisherman. He's setting the hook deeper and deeper. By the second paragraph, I'm hooked and he's reeled me in. "Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write."

I picked the books at random. The third book is a novel by C.S. Lewis. "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold." It is first person, so maybe that makes the opening stronger than Paterson's novel which is third person or omniscent. Yet, Black's book is first person. So point of view doesn't seem to be the point of strength for C.S. Lewis's opening. He's painting a character we may recognize, even relate to, but yet, out of the norm. She has a story I want to hear or at least I think I want to hear more.

What if the first line doesn't introduce a person? What if it goes on for a couple pages, several pages, and doesn't formerly introduce the character. Would you read it? Would it work? Why? Perhaps the place is a character?

First line: "Jail is not as bad as you might imagine."

Do you want to read the second sentence?

I do.

"When I say jail, I don't mean prison."

This requires clarification, so we really must read the third sentence, which leads to the fourth, which leads you to wonder who is telling us this and why and why are they so obsessed about jails? Another good fisherman. The hook is set. This comes from Anna Quindlen's novel, "One True Thing."

When writing for a daily deadline at a newspaper, I found that the part that took the longest was the opening hook. Often we'd write the rest of the article and realize that the last line was actually the first line -- the words that would draw the reader in and cause them to continue reading.

Let me return to Mr. Black's book. Remember the short first sentence he wrote: "I had it made." I flip to the last page (before the Epilogue) and read the last line. "Looking at the river is peaceful, and the reflections on the water are like the reflections on my life." Ehhh well, a little melodramatic and perhaps you've seen that before in some navel gazing overwritten book.

I look over the paragraph and find his opening. This would draw me in. "Nobody wants to help you unless there is someting in it for them."

I want to know how this person came to such a negative outlook and at the same time I realize that I have that same thought surfacing in my own brain now and then. I can identify with the thought and at the same time I am curious as to who this person is. And I really want to hear the story that involves this attitude.

Not only do opening sentences draw in the reader. They set the tone of the book -- not only for the reader, but for the writer. If that first sentence doesn't work, the writer has not found his or her story, yet. Often it takes alot of prewriting, rewriting, screaming and crying, and desperate days to find that first sentence.

Here are a few more firsts for you to decide for yourself whether they work or not:

1.  "Forgive me my denomination and my town; I am a Christian minister, and an American."

[A Month of Sundays, by John Updike] How often do you see a novel begin with an apology?

2.  "Shoot, birthdays, they ain't no big deal."

[Lyin Like a Dog, by R. Harper Mason]

3.  "It happened every year, was almost a ritual."

[The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson]

4.  "The housekeeper is ironing and I am lying on the floor beside her, trying to secretly look up her dress."

[Joy School, by Elizabeth Berg]

Each opening sentence has just enough there to grab you and just enough missing to keep hold of you. And that, I think, is the secret of novel writing -- well, at least writing the first sentence. But remember, by the time you find that perfect first sentence -- you have probably already written the book at least once to find it. Once you've found it, now you can 'rewrite' the book, making it what you were meant to write all along!