Tag Archives: first lines

Writing a Book Together: An Opening Line Every Day of January and February

So what’s happened since last week? Have you gotten a first line? Found a way to start this new adventure? Has anyone stepped out of the dark, taken your hand and led you toward a novel that feels to have lots of promise?

I have an exercise I’ve shared here about opening lines. It’s one I do every few months. For thirty days, every day, I write a first line to a new novel. Every time I start  I think, “This time it will be easy.” And every time I find out an opening line is hard.

Why? The more days I play with openings, the harder they become. I realize I need to think more about characters–where they are in their lives, their situations, who they are. I worry over what would be the best line for that person I’m writing this book about.

These are not throw-away words. They need to mean something to me.

At the beginning of last year I played this game with myself and came up with more than a month’s worth of first lines, including this one: “When Momma finally died, me and my sisters weren’t surprised.” This line came several days into the exercise, but as I kept writing , day after day, it called to me. I listened.

Last November or so I finished the book about three sisters who lose their mother on page two of the novel. It’s now on submission. Here’s a bit of the synopsis:

“Momma is dying and Mister Paisley wants the land Iris, Ella, and Rory have grown up on.

It’s 1960-something and death isn’t the only thing complicating life for the Flynn girls. Daddy is gone and has been since before Rory’s birth. There are unwanted evening guests who creep around the house, angels who tap at the windows, and the meadow is dangerous to all, including the girls, after dark.”

Here’s a first line Ann Dee came up with when we were teaching a workshop class together:

“My dad ate an airplane one bite at a time.” We’re almost done with the novel. Don’t ask us what we’re doing. We have no idea.

Here’s what I do know about first lines–they have to have enough promise, intrigue, worry, feeling and wonder that you, the writer, can keep going.

So let’s do this together. For the rest of January and all of February come up with a line for a new novel every single day. I write my lines in pencil on a large blank calendar. For me, it’s an easy way to see my progress. HINT: I find I actually end up with more than one sentence. So write small if you choose to do the challenge this way. ANOTHER HINT: If you find you have an emotional connection to your line, this may be the book you want to follow.

PS My daughter just gave me my first line for my novel. It’s from her own life and she texted me this earlier: He wants me to dust the plants. All the plastic plants.

I think I now have a story.

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That First Line

It’s almost time to evaluate yourself and see how you did this past year on your writing goals. I hope you’ve been good to yourself. This month we will have a couple of guest bloggers talking about goals. Here’s a hint: Both have first names. Both have first names that start with the letter “C.” And both are coolio people. So there.

As we end this year, I want to talk about the beginnings of our books. I mean all the way down to the first lines of our novels. The reason is Kyra’s book. I’m not so sure she knows what she’s done in this writing of hers, but Kyra has come up with a great first line–one that plays directly into the climax of the novel.

When you read that line, that beginning, you just think the author is being funny, and maybe a bit autobiographical. Then you see this first line works into the novel itself–being used once in a while–as a reminder. And because I happen to know the climax of the book, I know where this line is directing the reader. And the truth is, I’m not so sure I’ve ever had first line tie so well into the story. Sure they relate. They may even draw you in. But none have been directly tied to why the reader is reading.

The opening sentence of a book should be like a good pick up line. When you’re dating, you want a good one. After he opens his mouth you want to be able to say, “Oh, he’s cute and funny! I could spend some time here!” When you’re a reader and you open a book, you want a line that brings you into the story. “Oh, this is ____________ (tragic, hilarious, intriguing etc)! I want to spend some time here!”

MT Anderson does this, of course, in FEED, with that great first line about the moon that lets the reader know that something has changed on earth and we aren’t in Kansas any more. A good opening line is a promise of things to come. What an author never wants to do (but it happens all the time) is set up the reader with a false expectation, one the author can’t fulfill. That doesn’t happen in Anderson’s book. We get a whole novel that’s pretty darn terrific and it all started off with a terrific promise–a great opening line.

Unlike my daughter, Kyra’s book isn’t perfect–but it has a strong voice, a compelling character and a good reason to keep reading. You’re interested. What’s surprised me about Kyra is that she seems to know how a novel should unfold. Sure, she’s learned some of that from me. Mostly, though, she’s a natural learner. One who’s picked up skills from the amazing books around her. She’s let fiction be her best teacher–and what better teacher is there?

Just yesterday Kyra’s older sister, Laura said, “I thought I could write a book and then I started reading Kyra’s and I realized I just don’t know how to do it all.”

What Kyra has learned Very Well from me is how to complain. And about the very subject I complain about–those Icky Middles. Yes, she’s well into them. “Now what?” Kyra says when she wanders upstairs after writing. “What should happen now? I don’t know what happens next.”

Me either, Kyra. My best advice . . . keep going. A word at a time. And hopefully you’ll know how to finish up what you started–which is pretty darn good.

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