Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What's My Line? by Andrea Downing

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
"Call me Ishmael."
No, neither of those lines apply to my good self, and they certainly don’t belong together.  I’m about to start writing a new book and, as so often happens to us authors, I’m faced with that blank white page screaming for a great first line.  Romance authors are told to get the reader right into the story, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a great opening. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" certainly gives you a strong idea of what is to follow, and I still believe "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” sets the scene pretty dang well.  Yet these classic lines would be laughed out of the editor’s office nowadays.  I can just see someone sitting over that last line thinking, when the Dickens will this sentence ever end?
In this fast-paced life with little time for long reads, readers have shorter attention spans —hence the popularity of novellas.  Furthermore, writers of romance work within a certain set of parameters that may, or may not, hamper them, POV being the most obvious.  No head-hopping!  No author intrusion!  No omniscient observer! One POV per scene!  Leaving any editing skills I may or may not have behind, I originally started Dances of the Heart with the line, ‘They saw him at the same time.’  This somehow managed to stumble by all my critiquers and beta-readers, who patted me on the back and told me what a great opening it was.  Not so my editor who, if you’re worth your pound of printing paper, immediately threw the line out.  Whose POV was this sentence?
And then there’s ‘Voice.’  We’re admonished to have a new, fresh, exciting, individual, original—so on and so forth—voice.  One day I’d like to do a test of readers and have them read books by authors I know them to have already read, and see if they can then name the author by the end of the book.  Or perhaps it should be by the end of the first sentence?
So here I am, back at my blank white page.  When Jane Austen sat down to write by hand, did she feel the same way before coming up with "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" ?  Right into the story, isn’t it?  With Loveland, I had to scrap seventy-two pages before getting to  "The clamor started at ten o'clock when all the men were in their bunks."  That’s an awful lot of story gone out to pasture to get my readers where they needed to be.
So what’re your favorite first lines?  Or least favorite?  Or what struggles have you had either reading or writing a book due to the first line.  Cheer me up!  I’d really like to know.  

And to read the rest of Loveland, which was a finalist for the RONE Best American Historical, please head to either for the eBook or, for the print book, The Wild Rose Press:




Margo Hoornstra said...

Ha! Funny you should ask about first lines today. There I was ready to continue on the old wip (2K more and I'm done) when I hear about a call for a new series. You guessed it - I now possess 467 words of a BRAND NEW wip. Plus, h/h names, professions and backgrounds, and premise of the story. AAKK. "Simply sign on the bottom line, Mr. Reese and you can take the children home with you today if you'd like." (Wrote that BEFORE I read your 'Whose POV was this sentence?') Won't work, huh?? At any rate, I loved the examples in your post and enjoyed all the information. Best of luck with that screaming blank white page. You'll have it filled in no time.

Rolynn Anderson said...

I like your first sentence, Margo! Go with it!

See, the thing is, you can't get tense over the first draft...I learned the same lesson in golf. Tenseness ruins a swing. Forget about a perfect first sentence. Remember ALLLLLLL the revising that takes place for any novel, and you let go of the need for writing ANY perfect sentence the first time. I am a pantser and I have to believe what I just said. I need to be loose writing that first draft or I don't have fun and I'm no fluid. Never mind that what is fluid today is treacle tomorrow at the second-fiftieth revision.

Here's my first sentence for Cezanne's far.
The moment he saw her, framed by the doorway of the airport express bus, the earth stuttered on its axis.

Mush on with a smile, Andi. And hang the rules! said...

Margo, I'm so glad my post was timely for you--and I'd keep that first line, if I were you. As Rolynn says, hang the rules...
Thanks for the great advice, Rolynn--somewhere in the back of my mind, however, are the letters of complaint that will come in from readers. But then, maybe I should forget about them, too?

Jannine Gallant said...

First lines are fun. Sometimes... I checked out my most recent books, and realized my focus has shifted to first paragraphs rather than first lines for making an impact. I had to go back to my two old cowboy novellas to find a couple of clever first lines. Here they are.

Only one thing in the state of Texas was louder than the whine of Cole Matheson’s chainsaw—the red-haired demon child he called a nephew.

and my all time favorite

Chase Paladin slammed on the brakes and prayed.

One is longer but sets a tone. The other is short and dramatic. So, my take on the subject is there's no right or wrong way to write a first line. Good luck with your new WIP, Andi!

judy said...

Yes times have definitely changed. Guess it is best to read the classics but not try emulate their style.

Diane Burton said...

Great post, Andrea. I loved your first example. Like everyone else, I imagine, I knew immediately it was Rebecca. Sure makes the reader wonder why she dreamed and what/where was Manderley. To me, it's the best of the best 1st sentences.

Margo, go with your first sentence, but leave off "if you like." It dilutes the impact.

My fav (of my own) is from The Case of the Bygone Brother: She had trouble written all over her. I hope the reader wonders who she is, etc.

Alison Henderson said...

I love first lines. It's so much easier to tinker with the first line until it's perfect than to revise the whole darned book until it's perfect! Also, POV is rarely obvious in my first lines, and I don't think it's important if the line is strong enough. The reader finds out soon enough - usually by the second or third sentence. Good luck with your story!

Vonnie Davis said...

First lines are the most fun to write. Put yourself in the character's head at the precise moment you want the story to begin and blast off. I'm writing a novella about an emergency dispatcher and a police detective. She's on the phone with a 911 call. Opening line...internal dialogue, first person in italics. I have to pee. Next paragraph she gives the frantic father instructions on how to deliver a baby along the roadside.

I'm also working on a book written in a voice for millennials. Writing in a different voice for a different age group is not so easy, at least not for me. My voice is mine, full of humor and what I hope comes off as warmth. I thought I was up for the challenge. What was I thinking???

Great post. said...

Jannine, I love both your first line examples. Makes me wonder why we bother writing blogs and don't just advertise the first lines!

Judy, nope, wouldn't try to emulate Austen or Dickens or Melville. Maybe DuMaurier?

Diane, I think your reader will wonder who she is! As for Rebecca, I read that on my honeymoon and couldn't put it down. Maybe that's why I'm now single?!

Alison, I don't think it was that my POV wasn't obvious in that lost first line the editor made me take out; it was because of the 'they'-author intrusion!

Vonnie, I love the way you hit a truism. don't we all get calls when we have to pee? LOL good luck with the millennial book. Guess that's 'new adult' huh?

Beth Trissel said...

Excellent post! You dealt with my author struggles and questions. I love the opening line from Rebecca. among my most favorites ever. And thank God Dickens didn't live now. So many of our great works would never be published today with the writing rules we labor under. Yes, there is a need for guidelines, but they can also be stifling to creativity and voice. said...

Beth, I think the writing rules for Romance are about the tightest--if you write literary fiction, there basically are no rules! But break one in romance, Ha! I'm for breaking all rules...

Leah St. James said...

Great post, Andrea! Of course you picked one of my all-time favorite books to use as an example (Daphne DuMaurier's line about Manderlay from REBECCA). You captured all the "rules" of the romance genre perfectly...and made me laugh! I'm sure readers have no clue how we struggle over these things! Best of luck with your screaming white page. I'll bet you've already got it figured out. said...

Yes, the WIP is, indeed, in progress, Leah, but no first line as slowly grabbing as the one from Rebecca. Went right to the action: "Lizzie Adams wrung her hands as the two burly men hefted her new acquisition up the narrow stairway toward her third floor apartment."
Of course, whether that's the first line in the final draft remains to be seen. Y'all will have to buy the book to find out, coming out in an anthology, The Good, The Bad, and The Ghostly---for Hallowe'en.

Brenda Whiteside said...

I once pulled five of my favorite books off the shelf to see what that hook was and guess what? Boring. It took the first couple of paragraphs to get good. So I guess I don't have a favorite first line. I do bemoan that books aren't allowed author intrusion or omniscient observer. I find those intriguing when handled well.

Alicia Dean said...

Awesome post...I love trying to come up with a great opening line, but I seldom do. ;) I agree with Alison, was it? Who said a compelling opening scene or first few chapters is more important. I actually have presented a few workshops on opening lines, and that is one thing I try to stress, don't beat yourself up if you can't come up with a zinger of a one-liner to open your story. Sometimes writers do that, then lose their readers quickly. It's more important to build momentum. I like the openings you guys have shared in the comments. Margo, I agree with Diane, your opening line works, but removing 'if you like' would make it tighter and more intense. The problem with the "they saw him at the same time' is that you are not in any one particular POV, you are speaking for more than one character. Could be anywhere from 2 to a million. Who are 'they'? The MC and her companion, or an entire football stadium of people? It's okay that you start out with a 'he' or 'she' etc, and yes, we probably are going to find out soon who 'they' are, but even later in the story, in order to stay in deep POV and help us connect with the POV character, you don't want to speak for both by using something like 'They felt the rain on their backs as they stepped onto the porch' (Which was in a successful book I'm currently reading, and I'm thinking, she can't KNOW that he also felt the rain. Maybe his jacket is thicker or he is wearing thermal underwear. :)

Sorry...I go into editor mode and over-explain sometimes. Even having said the first line is not always critical, when it's done well, I'm captivated. Here are a few great opening lines (from other novels, not mine):

“Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.”
—Lynda Barry, Cruddy

“Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.”
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses”