Friday, September 30

Writing the First Sentence

I'm surrounded by my favorite novels, all opened to their first pages.
Each first line is distinctly unique.
The style, the rhythm, the structure... the first line fits the second line, fits the paragraph, fits the entire novel so perfectly.

It's so easy to read the first line of a novel, especially if it grabs the reader, making you want to sink your teeth into the book.

But writing that first line, well, that's not quite so easy.

Every writer may have a different approach to writing it, but, I assume, none find it easy to get that first line so perfect the first time they sit down to start writing a new story.

Many books and blogs write about hooking the reader from the start. Listed among the criteria is often something like "a killer first line" or "a first sentence that grabs hold of the reader and won't let go." But it's rare to find more details on this important component to hooking the reader.

What exactly makes a killer first line? The ones surrounding me are all so different, yet each one worked like magic.

As in almost all these blog posts, I write this off the top of my head, just me and my opinion here. But here's what I think when it comes to writing a first line stunner. This is the process I use. It may or may not work for other writers.

Writing the First Sentence

1. Gather the Ingredients.

Hopefully you've already written down some parts of the story (i.e., character details, setting descriptions, even major and/or minor plot points). Use these ingredients to settle on the first opening scene of the story. Identify the voice, the main character's want, and the first source of conflict (all parts of the first chapter).

2. Draw the Scene.

Illustrate the scene. Write a list of images. Make a diagram. Do something on paper to get the ingredients down and teased apart. Save the Pinterest photo collage for later. This step requires paper and a pen. Consider the character's "before" moment. Look closer in this scene. What details stand out that you want to develop? What action speaks louder than the others? How does the scenery impact the mood?

3. Examples.

I consider so many books, so many authors to be my teachers. Time and time again I'll open all my favorite books and short stories and reread the first couple of sentences by the various authors. Some I hand write in my example notebook. I read them aloud. I get the rhythm. I study the sentence structure.

4. Start Your Story Ten Different Ways.

Maybe more than ten, but what's important here is to take a piece of paper or even a notebook. Write at the top of the first page "Possible Openings" (not "Possible First Sentences" because to get into the rhythm you'll want to write more than the first sentence.) Use this step to give yourself grace. Tell yourself none of these are going to be perfect, but have fun with them. Look to some of your examples. Take out a book of poetry and read lines at random. Let the rhythms simmer and then try out a few words of your own. If it jars, stop and start over on a new line. Start with a different word, a new detail. Begin with one of the five senses.

5. Run with it. For now.

After step 4, one detail, one moment will start to rise above the others as the one you want to go with. Perhaps your first sentence is exactly perfect, but for now, use the best one you've written and continue with it. Write the first paragraph with that first sentence. Take a break. Walk away. Then come back to it, read it aloud and look for three important elements: (1) Circle the character's identifying words, (2) Underline the words that carry the voice or tone of the paragraph, and (3) Star words that show plot or conflict or want. If your paragraph is missing any of these three things, start over in a blank space and add in the missing element.

6. Finish the chapter, or the first 50 pages, then go back.

I think the first 50 pages are the most important ones. If done well, the reader will keep going. But a reader won't invest their time and energy in reading more if they're frustrated or bored by that mark. After I've finished writing the first chapter, I go back to the beginning and read the opening paragraph. Does it fit with the rest of the chapter? Is it the best image/scene/detail to begin the first chapter with? Depending on how I answer these questions, I may or may not rewrite that first page or first paragraph. Then I go on to writing the next chapter. Once the entire manuscript is finished I set it aside for weeks. Most often after that much time has passed, I go back and make changes to the first sentence/first paragraph. I might draw from a line I like better that I wrote somewhere else in the book. Or I might keep it until I get feedback from critique partners.

I used to feel overwhelmed when it came to writing the first line of a story. So much pressure to get it right. We read published books and short stories that seem so clever and perfect, but it's easy to forget that these are polished drafts that have had numerous people giving the authors advice before we get to read them. The first drafts of these books may not look like the final draft, but we'll never know that. Use these final drafts to guide and teach you, but don't forget that your first draft doesn't have to be perfect.

Now I approach writing the opening line of a story as a game. I fill up pages and pages with possibilities. The crazier the better. The bigger the range of different ways the more likely I am to find one that clicks with me. And when one does sing, then I find the entire voice of the story open up for me and writing that story becomes so much easier.

Thursday, June 30

Opening Lines Contest

From Adventures in YA Publishing the Red Light/Green Light contest has begun! 50 first lines will be narrowed down to 25 in the first round. Lots of great openings here I suggest checking out!

Friday, May 13

Choosing the Opening Scene

Like most of these posts, I write this post to answer my own questions. In this case, how does a writer choose the first scene of the story? First lines may pave the way, but not always. Even once the opening scene is written, how do we know that is the best scene to begin with?

First, what makes a strong scene?
Books have been written to answer this question, but to summarize, a successful scene has three parts: goal, conflict, and disaster. Within this scene, we'll get pieces of the character's external/internal arc, setting, dialogue, action, etc.

But what about the first scene, the one and only a literary agent may spend time reading? These are the elements I've found most frequently mentioned as ones to include in the opening scene.

1. The protagonist painted in a light that makes us immediately care for her and give her a signature trait.
2. A mirror of the major conflict at play seen on a smaller scale.
3. Conflict that draws the protagonist out of her comfort zone and moves story forward.
4. Hint at or state character's needs and the story's theme.
5. Voice. This scene sets the tone and pace for the rest of the story.

I think we've all encountered reading that list multiple times, but does it get easier? Maybe. Maybe not.

What definitely helps is looking at examples. Here are a two from books I've recently read:

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
1. Shahrzad volunteers to become the king's wife despite the threat it poses on her life, all because she wants revenge for her BFF's murder. She doesn't wear necklaces (humble). She's speaks her mind (defiant).
2. Conflict of first scene is meeting the king and agreeing to be his wife after she tells her father farewell, all of this reflects the book's conflict of being his wife and how this impacts her other relationships and her personal struggle with guilt.
3. Shahrzad puts her life at risk and we want to keep reading to see if she will live. This scene is the beginning of her relationship with the king.
4. Her need is to redeem her BFF Shiva, but her deeper need is to love someone and herself despite the flaws.
5. Voice is a contrast of beautiful descriptions and sharp dialogue that keeps the pace moving forward.

Unhooked by Lisa Maxwell
1. Gwen's attentive to her mother's needs and has recently been uprooted from her school and friends to relocate. She pays the taxi driver (responsible). She feels something about her is lacking (humble).
2. Gwen is presented with a new environment, and despite feeling uncertain she moves forward with determination. So when she's taken to Neverland and is very uncertain, scared, worried, she still has determination.
3. Another move. More worrying about her mother. Uncertain about this new house. This scene shows Gwen in a new place yet not as foreign as Neverland.
4. Gwen needs to be settled. She needs a mother who is the one handling situations. Gwen needs answers to questions she keeps at bay.
5. Very descriptive and personal emotion touched on.

So what does this tell us?

Pick a scene that doesn't set the story too far back in backstory.
The scene could be the beginning of it all or a contrast to what happens next in the second scene.

Those aren't the only options. Here are some more from other books that I can think of off the top of my head:

A new environment.
The arrival of a startling element (character, setting, object).
A choice that dictates the rest of the character's story.
Loss of something or someone of importance to the main character.
An action that displaces the character out of her comfort zone.
World conspires against the character.

So how do you choose?
My best advice is to try out a few different scenes, all very different from one another. Review each scene for the five important elements. If one scene best displays those five elements, then go with that one.

Now, time to see if I can do just that!

Friday, January 22

The Long Lost Opening

A few years ago I attended a writers' conference in New York and heard an opening to a novel that had only recently been accepted by a publisher. The publisher spoke to us about his excitement over winning the bid to publish this book. He read to us the opening paragraphs and we were all hooked. The only problem: he didn't tell us the name of the author or the title.

Since then I've often thought of those few paragraphs I heard, remembering the scene and how much I wanted to read what happens. After years of searching and reading book after book, I've finally found it!

Beth Revis's book "Across the Universe" begins just like the words spoken by the publisher who bid for this book. The publisher was practically jumping up and down from where he spoke. I remember wondering what kind of book was this that made this man so excited. Here are the opening lines that I heard spoken so long ago only to finally find the book. Now I wait for the second and third books in this trilogy journey to me from

Daddy said, "Let Mom go first."

Mom wanted me to go first. I think it was because she was afraid that after they were contained and frozen, I'd walk away, return to life rather than consign myself to that cold, clear box. But Daddy insisted.

"Amy needs to see what it's like. You go first, let her watch. Then she can go and I'll be with her. I'll go last."

"You go first," Mom said. "I'll go last."

But the long and short of it is that you have to be naked, and neither of them wanted me to see either of them naked (not like I wanted to see them in all their nude glory, gross), but given the choice, it'd be best for Mom to go first, since we had the same parts and all.

She looked so skinny after she undressed. Her collarbone stood out more; her skin had that rice-paper-thin, over-moisturized consistency old people's skin has. Her stomach--a part of her she always kept hidden under clothes--sagged in a wrinkly sort of way that made her look even more vulnerable and weak.

The men who worked in the lab seemed uninterested in my mother's nudity, just as they were impartial to my and my father's presence. They helped her lie down in the clear cryo box. It would have looked like a coffin, but coffins have pillows and look a lot more comfortable. This looked more like a shoebox.

Monday, November 2

Surfacing in the Slush Pile

We all know literary journals are swamped with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions.
We all believe our own submission is the 'cream of the crop' (except if we're using cliches like that it isn't).
Yet we all receive rejections, more rejections than acceptances.

Slush pile readers face dauntless manuscripts. So it's no surprise that many toss aside a submission after reading no further than the first paragraph.

If you want your story to rise above the others in the slush pile, to stand a chance at being placed before an editor's eye, then you need to craft a fabulous, flawless first paragraph.

Elements of a Fabulous, Flawless First Paragraph:

1. A protagonist we care about.
2. A story goal or theme.
2. Demonstrate in details.
4. No mistakes.
5. Hook the reader.

1. A protagonist we care about

    Consider including in the opening paragraph any or all of these aspects: her goals, fears, needs, quirks,

2. A story goal or theme.

    Using dialogue, a particular action, a symbol or touchstone to give the reader an understanding, an expectation of what to look forward to in the story.

3. Demonstrate in details.

    Don't tell the reader he loves her, express it using the senses, specific details, and/or figurative language. Make it unique.

4. No mistakes. 

    Check the spelling, grammar, sentence structure. But go beyond this, no cliches, no repetition of words, no use of common words, no passive voice.

5. Hook the reader.

    Focus on the final sentence of the opening paragraph. Is there an element of tension, uncertainty, doubt, anticipation? What can you add to this sentence to hook the reader enough to read the second paragraph?

Friday, October 2

Falling in Love

What brings us into a story more than a good hook, an intriguing plot, an unusual line of dialogue, a well-described setting?


And not just any character.
Not Mrs. Jones who lives two doors down. Not Amy the architect. Not the little girl with a broken leg and a brother she saved from a runaway cement truck.

Wait, maybe that girl, she's the one. Why?

Because within a space of a few words the reader has fallen in love with her. Well, maybe not love, but there's definitely a growing sense of care for the child.

So how do you make your reader begin to care for your character from the beginning?

A reader doesn't have to fall in love with the character, although that's great too, but if a reader begins to care about your character, then it makes it that much harder to put the story down. Our heart is taken in by the story and we have to stay there until it begins to beat independently again.

When I read a story and discover a character who defies the odds, whose quirky personality adds to her convictions, who faces a larger-than-life foe, or who invests in a relationship in a good way, then I begin to care about the character.

Throw in a flaw that's endearing or a physical trait or mannerism that challenges the character, but who's determined to live life to the fullest despite any quality that may hinder her, then I'm hooked. I am emotionally invested in the character.

Here are some characters that hooked me from the beginning:
Katniss (The Hunger Games Trilogy)
Laia (An Ember in the Ashes)
Alma (The Signature of All Things)

Each one has her own flaws, but she either deals with them or overcomes them by the book's ending. And it's not just the flaws that drew m in from the beginning, it was the character's unique personality and voice and what she was facing from page one.

A sign of emotional investment is not being able to put the book down, but an even bigger sign is that you think of this character, you live in her world, you feel for her, and you weep for or with her. I think about these characters still even though it's been months or years since I last read the books.

Friday, September 4

Friday Favorites

Oxford American's Summer 2015 Fiction Issue is out in bookstores!

Here's one of my favorite openings, taken from Nick Fuller Googins story "Origin Stories."

Their first months of ecstatic infatuation, Girl and Boy were the type of people to scorn that most standard of cocktail-party questions: what-do-you-do? Rather than answer directly, they'd discuss their curiosities and visions. Human existence, they believed, was far too complex for the flattening language of economic occupation. To reduce it as such was so derivative, so cliched. So American!