Thursday, March 29, 2007

ON FIRST IMPRESSIONS

"A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it."

**Stanley Fish in the New York Times

*********************

HANK:
Stanley Fish was in Maureen Dowd's spot in the Times...and had a wonderfully thought-provoking column.

It was about how he can pick a good mystery in the airport bookstore--really fast--as they're calling his flight.

He says: the only "sure fire" method? Not the cover, not the jacket copy, not the blurbs. He says it's to read the first line.

He has a clunker or two--but offered this as the one from the book he bought:
"Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride."

He says "it's efficient, dense, and free of self-preening."

So--you all--what think?
**Does your first line pass the Stanley test?
(I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours...and I must say, after two years of working on my first novel, the first line in the soon-to-be published book never changed.)

**Does your favorite first line pass the Stanley test?

**What book is he quoting, anyway? Anyone know?

RO:
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Wait a minute, that's not mine. I must have dreamt I wrote that. That, of course, is the compelling first line of Rebecca. I saw the movie many years before I ever read the book, or even knew who Daphne du Maurier was. How could you not be drawn in by that opening? I have changed the first line to my first book (BSP, Pushing Up Daisies, St. Martins Feb 2008) so many times that I don't exactly remember it - not a good sign, I suppose!! Omigod, just reread it for the first time in months, and it's too late to change so don't say anything mean..

"My first guess was heirloom silver, or maybe the family jewels, buried and forgotten years ago by some light-fingered servant or paranoid ancestor."

Needless to say, the wisecracking amateur sleuth's first guess is wrong.

JAN:
I think all the rewriting was a good thing, Ro. I really, really like that opening. I'm hoping that everyone adopts Stanley Fish's method for choosing a book. I don't think I've ever had an especially catchy opening line in my previous books, but I'm fond of my opening sentence in Yesterday's Fatal. (May 2007) Short but sweet.

It's not that fatals are beneath me.

That's my protaganist, Hallie, talking. The next graph is more dense, explaining that she's newspaper reporter and that she's talking about fatal car accidents. It sets up some of the changes, attitude and politics in the newsroom, and of course the fatal she's about to stumble upon.

Anyway, I did some rewriting as well. Originally, it was simply, Fatals are beneath me. But this was tongue-in-cheek, and I realized that most readers wouldn't be able to interpret it as such -- especially the ones who had never read Hallie before.

So it evolved, like your opening Ro.

So it's your turn, Hank, let's hear it!

HANK:
Between the hot flashes, the hangover and all the SPAM on my computer, there’s no way I’ll get anything done before 8 o’clock this morning. I came in early to get ahead, and already I’m behind.

(No, that's not my explanation of why I'm late with this blog entry. That's the first line--two, really--of PRIME TIME.)

And it is pretty fascinating, you have to admit, that you can tell instantly from our three lines exactly what kinds of stories you're about to hear.

In Ro's, someone digs up something sinister, buried long ago. And you're compelled to read on--because what's her second guess? And then, what was reality? And since your main character is a master gardener, that makes "digging" even more meaningful.

Jan's has a more world-weary tone, instantly. And obviously someone is dead.
And "fatals" instantly means reporter. And it instantly sounds like "Reporter who has to do something she doesn't want to do." All in 7 words.

And mine: she's busy. She's crazed. She's of a certain age. She has a job where there's some pressure and tension. Something is at stake. In the next line--you hear about "downstairs in the newsroom...."

Well, I'd love to hear more first lines...and talk about makes them work. Or not...

HALLIE:

Funny this should come up - I've just been trolling for great first lines as part of my research for a nonfiction project. My fellow Jungle Reds have great opening lines, sadly mine are fairly pedestrian novel openings (sorry, it's the truth...a problem when you're a writer and a critic). The best I've done is from DELUSION: "I woke up craving watermelon."

Here are some that are choice. Read them and see if you can guess the book...answers at the end of my blogette:

1. When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from his unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

2. There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.

3. If you want to find Cherry Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads.

4. Nobody could sleep.

5. My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.


ANSWERS BELOW:

1: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - 2: Silent Spring by Rachel Carsons - 3: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers - 4: The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer - 5: Liar's Club: Mary Karr

14 comments:

The Writers' Group said...

Hello Ladies,

I love your blog. Very unique and thought provoking. Rebecca is one of my all time favorite books. The language so rich, and the plot so compelling. If I can come half the way toward it with my own novel, I would dance. My opening line hasn't changed since my first draft, and has received good feedback. Now as for the rest, I am deep in revisions. And I know I'm in the minority, since I think that's when the real fun begins. Keep on with your great blog.

Lynne

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Lynne:

Welcome! And we're looking forward to Negotiation Generation..this fall, is that correct?

Interesting that your opening line hasn't changed, even though it's revisions time. Wonder how/why that happens? Or maybe a wonderful first line is what lets you begin. And you know, I'm with you. I kind of love revisions.

Thanks for the kind words, too...
come back and chat.

The Writers' Group said...

This blog is fast becoming one of my favorites. How thought provoking!

My first line hasn't changed since the day I typed it, or the last, but everything inbetween certainly has. That first line is the lure that reels in the reader, so make it pretty, make it shine, and very, very sharp.

Amy

Rosemary Harris said...

Now that I've reread my first line - which I hadn't done since handing in the manuscript - I am agonizing over the second line. Does it ever end??

Jan said...

Ro, you're in the POS phase. A writing condition documented by science at some university, somewhere. Close your eyes and breathe. It will pass.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Between first draft and now, my first line, my setting, the names of my characters and several major plot points all changed. :) I always try to give authors three chapters before deciding not to read a book. I HS, I forced myself to finish every book I started. I don't have the time to spend with books I cdon't are for anymore.

First lines of my current works-in-progress:

Intercessor Martin was whiskey-drunk again.

and

"Gizzi, get that heifer."

I love Rebecca. Does anyone else love the first line of Pride and Prejudice? I can't remember it word-for-word and my copy is at school.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

First line of Pride and Prejudice...(Okay, I googled it.)

But another test of a good first line--can't you just hear this being read aloud?

(Beautiful School Marm..what's an intercessor? I know about heifers, at least..

Amy--still waiting for your first line! Of course at some point soon, we'll all be reading the whole thing...


xoxo
Hank

Becky said...

I adore first lines and as I think about it, probably have made a LOT of reading decisions based on them.

In my recent manuscript I clung to my opening, "I stole my first scratch ticket last night." I clung to it because I LOVED it so, but my agent wanted a different character to start the book. So I had to give it up, sob.

You know what? I can't remember the opening line I settled on. That's not good, is it?

b

Jan Brogan said...

Best opening lines ever??
I, too, would cast a vote for the first line of Pride and Prejudice, which sets up the entire book in both tone and plot. But a close rival is, of course, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Saipan Writer said...

Very timely discussion for me.

I looked for editing help in several books, and liked the advice from Pat Walsh in his 78 Reasons... that your first chapter should begin with your best sentence.

So just yesterday I re-read each of my 4 drafts of my novel's first chapter, searching for the best sentence. Oddly enough, I picked a different sentence as "best" from each draft, and unfortunately two of the choices had been edited out (by my overactive blue pencil) and one is just a fragment that I like.

And now I'm in the process of choosing the one among the four that will be the real start of my novel. Each has something to recommend it, and thinking about them brings new focus and clarity to the story. And choosing them has helped me figure out what I like in my own writing.

Interesting process.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Hank, I write YA fantasy (or I'm trying to, anyway). An intercessor is a religious title, like a priest.

I've noticed that most of the favorite line mention (thoughthis is a small sampling) aren't action or dialogue, even though these are often suggested ways of starting. They're a statement or thought or a theme.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Saipan Writer: you're tantalizing us! We'd love to hear the lines..or at least what you decide.

and BSM: very interesting! I'm working on the first line of my next book now (still can't get used to saying that) and I'm not allowing myself to sit down at the computer to work on it until I have the exact line in my head. Right now, as you so wisely observe, it encompasses the theme. (I hope...)

Susannah said...

"I always get the shakes before a drop."

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, 1959.

"Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun."

Michael Perry, Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, 2002.

Susannah said...

And then look how the rest of that Heinlein paragraph goes.

I always get the shakes before a drop. I've had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can't really be afraid. The ship's psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn't fear, it isn't anything important -- it's just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn't say about that; I've never been a race horse. But the fact is: I'm scared silly, every time.

Now that's just hot.

Dang him.