Extra-special near pathological attention… to first and last lines….

Tracee: I’m given a bit of time this week to the importance first lines and pages in a manuscript. 

Do you work on these with special attention? Well, not special, but extra-special near pathological attention? 

Robin: If by “extra-special near pathological level” you mean “agonize day and night then second-guess myself to this very day,” yes. The first page is the most rewritten part of any manuscript for me. Runner up is the rest of the first chapter. I may revise the entire book 4 – 5 times, but I typically revise the first chapter 5 – 10 times. I literally pace like a caged animal while mulling over, writing, and rewriting the first sentence. Once I hit on a “grabber,” I’ll stick with it til I can picture it on my tombstone then I make sure the rest of the chapter measures up.

Susan: I’m definitely in the pathological-attention- to-first- paragraph camp. However, the flip side of that is that once I’m happy with my first paragraph, I’m generally happy with the book. Or as happy as anyone ever is with anything. I can then move forward and enjoy myself. Although occasionally I’ll be reading someone else’s book and want to swipe their first paragraph, as with the first paragraph of Michael Connelly’s book, Trunk Music: “As he drove along Mulholland Drive toward the Cahuenga Pass, Bosch began to hear the music.” I just loved that. Made me want to jump in the car with him. Susan

Cate: I spend a considerable amount of attention on the first and last lines of each chapter. Though, usually by the end of a book, I end up reworking the first chapter to have some tonal symmetry with the last, so a lot of that initial agonizing is for naught. 

Alison: Is there a way not to be pathological? I couldn’t agree with all of you more. The first and last bit of a chapter matter a lot. The last sentence of a chapter ties everything together, and, I hope, invites the reader to keep going. The first bit is like an amuse-bouche. It should make you want more. (Forgive me the foodie comparison, but it seems appropriate.) Having said that, I know more about the dark spiral of agonizing for naught than I care to. I’m coming to accept that particular demon as helpful, in so far as she pushes me to try to find a better way of saying something, even if that something ends up being deleted. There’s learning about craft along the way, right? For the record, the first word of Death in the Covenant, is “Damn!” A swear word I agonized over, but it’s what Abbie said. So, there you go. Sometimes we don’t control the sentences, our characters do.

Alexia: I don’t agonize over the first and the last so much as the middle. I start by figuring out the end, then I figure out where I start. I agonize over how to get from beginning to end without boring (losing) readers or wandering off the garden path. For my first page, I keep in mind a tip one of my writing instructors gave me, “make sure there’s danger on the first page.” Once I think of a way to suggest something sinister will happen later in the book (what’s that, foreshadowing? I forget technical terms.) the first page goes okay. And when I’m ending and beginning paragraphs I remember the tip that a paragraph makes a good “close the book and go to bed” pausing spot so it should end in a way that the reader will want to pick up where they left off. 

Michele: The first line, the first chapter, aren’t they what we’re told will make an agent/editor/reader keep reading or drop the book into the bin? I find the prospect of such  a “do or die” moment incredibly daunting. One reason is that as a reader, I know the first sentence, first few paragraphs, the first chapter if I read that far, are decisive for me. I spend an incredible amount of time on the first sentence and the first chapter for that reason. Oddly enough, some of the best first lines I’ve written have been edited out by me when I’ve considered they may be overkill or maybe I just got sick of them. Maybe you don’t have to punch a reader in the gut in the first sentence. Maybe you need only write a first sentence that makes her want to read the second, and a second sentence that makes her want to read a third, and so on. Maybe there should be a law that every writer must be in therapy.

Here’s a first line I cut: “Sabrina knew the man in the hammock was dead because she knew what dead looked like.” That’s another thing about first lines. When the book is done, there’s no looking back.

Tracee: Thank goodness I’m not alone! Thanks gals! And hope everyone had a marvelous Valentines/Galentines Day!

One comment

  1. That first line and that first page have to jump out at the reader if the book is going to get read. Currently working on managing my stress over the very same issue. This weekend I’m going to sit down with my list of favorite first lines (doesn’t everyone keep such a list?) and give a think as to why those lines worked on me and what they said about the book, its tone and theme.

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