“Many years later, in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember that distant afternoon his father took him to see ice.” – ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I recently was asked to answer a few questions regarding the importance of a good first line.
So naturally I decided I had to blog about this issue. It is here – in the entries of my blog – that I feel the absolute freedom to express myself as I see fit.
And also – this is a great excuse for me to avoid working on my latest novel.
So what’s a good first line?
“The bullet hit Santa Claus beneath the left eye.” – SOFT TARGET – by Stephen Hunter
That’s a good one that I just spotted the other day at the bookstore. I saw this book, SOFT TARGET, by Stephen Hunter – sitting on the shelf at a bookstore.
Now, I like Stephen Hunter’s work.
I haven’t liked every one of his books – but I liked a lot of them.
So – how do I know if I want to read this book?
Well – we could try looking at the cover.
So what does that cover tell me?
Well, it tells me that it’s a STEPHEN HUNTER novel.
And it tells me that at least ONE BULLET is going to be fired.
That’s important – if you’re a fan of Stephen Hunter novels. Stephen Hunter is one of those authors who has evolved into a NAME BRAND AUTHOR. I see “Stephen Hunter” on the cover – right off the bat I want to pick it up.
This is something all of us authors need to strive for.
I’m not there yet. There are readers out there who say – “Dang, this is a Steve Vernon novel. I’d better pick it up.”
That’s true. There are a few of them.
But most folks will see “Steve Vernon” on the cover and they’ll say – “Steve who?”
So, let’s say that “Stephen Hunter” ISN’T a brand name author yet. Let’s say he’s just a hopeful wannbe.
Let’s say he’s me.
So – the average reader is going to look at that book cover and say – okay, so a bullet is going to get shot. Probably at a soft target.
That still doesn’t mean that the reader is going to bother reaching for his wallet.
You see – that’s what a writer wants.
We want to have the reader reaching for his wallet.
Try and think of it this way. He reads that book in the bookstore – without reaching for his wallet – and you don’t see that royalty check. If you don’t see that royalty check then your bills don’t get paid. If your bills don’t get paid you wind up out in the street – and that’s the end of your writing career because it is AWFULLY hard to run a self publishing career successfully if you have to resort to plugging your computer into a fire hydrant.
It’s a little like that whole “tree falling in the forest without making a sound” koa.
“If a writer does not receive a royalty check then he didn’t write diddly-squat.”
Or at least that’s how I run my kitchen anyway.
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
So, if you aren’t a BRAND NAME WRITER – how do you get that reader to the whole “reaching for his wallet” stage of activity?
Well, for starters, you ought to have a REALLY good first line.
Just think about it. That is one of the first things that a potential reader will do. He’ll flip open the book and run his finger down the first page, moving his lips zubba-zubba-zubba while he does so.
Or at least I do, anyway.
That’s a critical factor for me in making my own mind up about reaching for that wallet. I read the first line or two just to get a better idea if this book is ACTUALLY something that I want to own.
“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” – FIREBREAK by Richard Stark
So, IS a first line that important?
I want you to just stop for a moment and try and imagine all of the many times that you said something stupid to a person that you were trying to impress right from the get-go. It might have been a boss that you were hoping would hire you. It might have been a hottie that you were trying to make a connection with. Just try and remember those many times that you opened your mouth and something dumb fell out of it.
A first line is a first impression.
A first line is that taste of honey that says to the reader – “My God – you have just found something worth spending time and money on.”
A first line is a well-dangled fishing lure.
A first line can be a boot to the side of the head.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard. — THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford
So you are probably expecting me to tell you the real SECRET to creating a truly kickass first line – aren’t you?
That’s why you started reading this blog – didn’t you?
You want a paint-by-number kit that you can take on home and use on your next bit of creative scribbling.
Well – I am truly sorry – but there is nothing EASY about writing – except maybe saying that you do it.
And let me tell you – saying ain’t doing.
So – where do I find my FIRST LINE?
Well, sometimes it jumps right out at me. Sometimes I see it just as clear as a clear blue day – floating there on the top of the page – saying something along the lines of – “Well, what are you waiting for – write me down!”
I’ve got a few lines like that. Some of them I’ve already used. Some of them are sitting in a notebook – just waiting for the rest of the story to come along.
But mostly it isn’t all that EASY at all.
Sometimes I’ll find my first line about three chapters into the first draft.
That’s what writing is like sometimes.
You can’t just sit around and wait for your first line to show up. You have to diver right in and start lining them words up and sooner or later your first line will see all that commotion and it will push past all them other lines you’ve lined up and jump right out into the lead.
So how will you know that it’s your first line?
Finding a good first line is a little like finding true love.
I’m not talking love like – Gee, I really love to eat pizza with my feet stuck out on the coffee table – I am talking big true love in BIG FREAKING CAPITAL LETTERS L-O-(my god I’m going to die if she doesn’t notice me now) – V-E!!!
Accept no substitutes.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Damn, I really love that last one. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has got to be one of my favorite novellas ever.
So what about bad first lines?
What about those clunkers that start some books – usually something about Joe Nobody getting out of bed and studying his own face in the bathroom mirror – thinking deep thoughts and wondering what this day will bring before he gets to the end of the story and gets run over by a bus?
Let me tell you.
A bad first line is like hanging a men’s room sign on the ladies washroom door in the middle of an all-you-can-drink-beer-athon.
It is bound to lead to some awkward and highly uncomfortable situations.
I mean – them women’s rooms don’t have any hang-on-the-wall urinals – which is why there are usually longer line-ups to the lady’s room than to the men’s – unless it is an all-you-can-drink-beer-athon.
A bad first line is a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign at a lawn party.
A bad first line is like telling your blind date that the doctor swore on a stack of e-pirated Bibles that your love-cooties were only directly communicable on months with an “R” in them.
A bad first line is the Gee-I was-certain-that-was-just-a-heavy-sounding-fart-before-I-unsqueezed in the dress pants of existence.
I’m not saying that it’s pretty.
So let me leave you with three more first lines.
It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road
Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
“Preacher Abraham Fell stared down at the witch, Thessaly Cross, breathing like he’d run for a good long stretch.” – TATTERDEMON by Steve Vernon
Which you can order on Amazon.
or on Kobo
or on Smashwords
or – if you aren’t motivated by any sort of gratitude over the five or ten minutes of amusing blogginess to rush out and download my book – why not read the review instead.
yours in storytelling,
(call me Ishmael)