Ten Minutes for Beginnings

Running a blog for years–a blog about writing–well, one begins to wonder what one should write about.

Okay–that’s the line I started with. Then I thought–what am I going to say today? What’s new out there?

Probably nothing, actually. But as I sat here I remembered something Richard Peck said years ago when he was here in UT. He was talking to a group of writers and teachers. His bit of wisdom that I’ve repeated in every writing class I’ve taught since? “You are no better than your first line.”

That means for anything, I think. The first line of a campaign speech, of a novel, of a poem, newspaper, article, essay, picture book. Your blog.

“Your novel,” Richard Peck told us that day, “may start chapters in. Find the right beginning.”

“Start your novel where the story starts,” I tell my students. On the day something new happens. Don’t waste time with back story.

Get in and get on with it. Grab your reader and run.

“My book gets great right about page 40,” people will tell me. (And yes. That’s about the number they all say). Common sense tells us that means the story starts on page forty. Someone has some work to do.

While Richard was here, he looked at the first three pages of a novel I’d begun. He asked me two questions, one of which was, “Does this start in the right place?”

I dropped him off at the airport that day and as I drove away I realized he was right about the book. I’d started wrong. I chopped off the first line–a bit of Florida description, I think–and the book began right where it needed to.

“What you doing, Girl?” Daddy said, when the burying was done.

Introduction of two characters, a bit of voice and a problem. Buried because of an extra line. Exposed, front and center when the first line was chopped away.

A great first line won’t save a bad novel. But it can set you up as a writer and point you where you need to go. It can offer a feeling of what you may now do. It can be a promise to the reader.

I’ve not sold this book and it’s been years. There have been two editors interested. And now another editor is looking at that novel. But I learned something from Richard that I’ve tried to use in every book since–get rid of what isn’t needed. Quit meandering.

Write the story and only the story. Readers just don’t care about the rest.

So in this blog? Cut off the first 50 or so words. That’s where this piece really begins.

Now go do that to your books.


Filed under CLW, Exercises, First Line, Voice

9 responses to “Ten Minutes for Beginnings

  1. Great first line! One of my favorite things to write is the first line of a story.

    • CLW

      I love this, Ilima. I need to interview you for this blog. Also, would you like to write a post about YOUR process with first lines?

  2. Amy

    That is an amazing first line.

  3. Joe

    I teach this to my students every year for NaNoWriMo. I actually have them hunt good first lines in the library. The reward came one day when I overheard one of my 9th graders tell a 7th grader, “Stay away from that one; the first line sucks.”

  4. Cheryl Christensen

    Thank you Carol, this was just what I needed to hear. I’ve been working on a new start and it’s been tough to figure the right place. I’ll be rethinking it.

  5. Thank you, Carol. I had a ticket to Richard Peck’s lecture at UVU–maybe it was the same one–and then, my dad died and his funeral was that Saturday.

    I spoke at the funeral. Daddy was a lovely man and only once in his life did he speak harshly to me. I cried for three days. I was so happy to be able to tell the audience about my dad and then, 1% of my sadness was that I missed hearing Richard Peck speak.

    So, thank you, Carol. How could I ever have known that so many years later I would get to hear something Richard Peck said?

    And remember my dad, and cry a little?


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