Fits and starts: My struggles to find the best beginning

by Pari

The phone call wasn't what I'd hoped for. My agent didn't like the direction I'd taken my rewrite. We talked for an hour, analyzing what worked and what didn't. After the conversation, I thought about my options:

Quit writing
Abandon this manuscript
Eat three pounds of chocolate in one sitting
Abandon the new series
Find a new agent

Pout
Drink some of that new scotch I'd bought for special occasions
Beat the crap out of the punching bag in my back yard
Throw myself into yet another rewrite
Rework the beginning to make the entire book more solid

Since I'm writing this particular blog with bloodied and sticky fingers, you can probably guess which choices I made.

In my Sasha Solomon series, I've prided myself on big first lines — the kind that make an impression — that get the laugh. While these fit Sasha's personality, I think I made deeper assumptions about first lines that were naive.

I was thinking too small.

A first line does not a book make.

Perhaps that's obvious to you; it took me five years to figure out.

Many of us were raised with the adage that "first impressions last a lifetime." I still think this is true. But there's squiggle room in a first impression; it doesn't happen all at once.  In writing, there is the first line and then some . . .

The first sentence begins the set up and influences how the reader will settle into the book. It brings with it the power to affect every perception that reader has about the ensuing story.

But it doesn't need to scream.

Ever since my conversation with my agent, I've been studying the first few paragraphs of books I like. What I've decided is that these initial introductions are promises. They set the stage and they'd better set it right.

Sasha is a smart aleck. So the first line of The Socorro Blast is spot on for her: "If Hell exists, it's filled with old boyfriends . . . and a cat."

With Darnda Jones, I've had to pull back. My new protagonist is a strong and witty character too, but she's far more secure in her life and world view. She knows herself better; she's mature. She also has a really weird job.

My first first line for Darnda was: "My name is Darnda Jones and I look like Cher should."

It's a great intro, but Darnda doesn't really care what she looks like. Vanity isn't a priority for her. So the lede is misleading. It's also bawdier than my character is. The promise here has a Janet Evanovich-y tone that I don't think I could or would want to sustain.

One of my next attempts was: "The palmetto bug limped, slowly making all the wrong decisions, as if suicide was on its tiny mind."

Another good beginning. It was also closer because of Darnda's work. However, it required too much up front explanation and slowed down the action. And I wasn't sure how many readers would sympathize with a giant cockroach.

For now I've settled on this version: "When you work as a psychic, you bump up against a lot of attitude. I didn't mind. With millions of lives at stake, snide comments were the least of my concerns."

This intro doesn't have the "sexy" punch of my others — it'd never work in a Sasha book — but it absolutely sets the scene and gives insights into the character right away. Darnda is on a mission. It's an important point and gets to the heart of what motivates her in her work.

I don't know if I'll stick with this newest beginning. Right now it's helping me ground the first few chapters. I have a feeling that if I put more of a foundation in those, the rest of the manuscript will make more sense.

At least that's what I'm hoping . . .

–What do you think about the role of first lines in a book/story?
–Do you have favorite firsts? Can you explain why they work alone or within context?
–Authors: Do you struggle with first lines. Do they come easily?
–Readers: Do you pay attention to those intros or are you committed to read more than that when you start a new book?

33 thoughts on “Fits and starts: My struggles to find the best beginning

  1. Lorraine Talbot

    Well, I’ll read the book cause I enjoyed all the Sasha books, so you have a sort of “track” record, but the 3rd opening is by far the grabber. Not much interested in anything about Cher and don’t know what a palmetto bug is, but someone working as a psychic, now that’s intriguing.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I have ranted before about my complete indifference to first lines of novels and my complete inability to understand why they are such a big deal to other people.

    But reading this post, and your own first lines, Pari, I finally GET it. First lines are a first person thing. If you’re writing in first person then the first line is the first thing the main character says to the reader, like an opening quip at a party, so that’s why you all agonize over it so much.

    I’ve never written in first person, and I rarely read books in first person, so this aspect had never really occurred to me before.

    When I pick up a book to consider whether or not I want to read it, the first page is one of the last things I get to. I go for the cover image, the flap copy; I might open it randomly and see what pops out. I don’t ever buy a book because of a first page – although I might discard it if it’s just badly written.

    But then, when I look at a first page, I don’t just start reading one word after another – I look at it visually, the whole thing – and register what impressions jump out. Crows. A storm. A line of dialogue. A sexual charge. A mood.

    If I’m intrigued by the impressions, then I’ll actually read from the beginning.

    Reply
  3. Michael McGovern

    Like Alexandra, a first sentence for me has not been that much of a dealbreaker, but your post has made me think about it a bit differently. I tend to write in the first person, so it really is important to get it right instead of just diving in mid-thought, because in a way the character is choosing this first sentence, much the same way they would choose an opening line at a dinner party.

    Best first line of a book for me was William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.” Sets up the entire book, and defines the next twenty-five years of technology and how we interface with it. I’ve read that first sentence over and over and it just gets richer and deeper.

    Reply
  4. Stephen D. Rogers

    I, too, think first lines have flown off the track with the “need” to be grabby.

    Yes, a first line should pull the reader into a story, but it does that by laying out the voice and a condensed version of the through/log line. The author should be able to then use that first line as a touchstone for the length of the writing process to return to the story’s core values. (Your final example seems as though it can fulfill these needs.)

    So many times, people use first lines to shill their wares: Cutting edge! Hip! New and improved! When they don’t fit with the rest of the book, they come off as something the Grinch would describe as “All the noise, noise, noise, noise.”

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  5. pari

    Lorraine,Your comment is an affirmation that I’m on the right track. I feel like I’ve been focussing too much on the beginning in some ways, but in starting a brand new series, I feel an obligation to start it really really well.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  6. pari

    Alex,I think you make a wonderful and important distinction. Thank you. I’m glad this post clarified this issue for us both.

    Setting the scene with 1st person begins with that voice from word one. I can prove it, too. Yesterday at a booksigning, I made people read the first sentence of the SOCORRO. If they laughed and liked it, they absolutely would like Sasha. If they didn’t, they shouldn’t read my books because her voice would annoy them.

    Reply
  7. pari

    Michael,What a fabulous first line. Wow.

    And I think in the past I’ve gone overboard with my focus on first lines. This whole process has been a painful and important lesson in becoming a more mature writer.

    At least that’s how I’m framing it right now . . .

    Reply
  8. pari

    EVERYONE: IT LOOKS LIKE TYPEPAD IS ACTING UP AGAIN. I’D SAVE YOUR COMMENTS JUST IN CASE THEY GET DELETED THE FIRST TIME.

    PLEASE DO COMMENT. IF IT ENDS UP BEING A DOUBLE POST, I’LL CLEAN IT UP LATER.

    Reply
  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’m a first line guy, but not every book needs to start with a fabulous first line. What it needs to start with is some kind of hook, and that hook can be blatant or it can be subtle.

    The point is, you want your readers, from the very beginning, to wonder what’s going on, or what has just happened or what’s about to happen. Not in a confused way, but in a curious way.

    For me, the opening, the first chapter — hell, the entire book — is simply a series of questions and answers. You put a question in the reader’s head, then you answer it.

    And once all the questions have been answered, you’re done.

    Reply
  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    And with all due respect to Alex, first lines are not a first person thing. Many great third person books have great opening lines. Check out the work of Richard Stark (Westlake) and dozens of other “pulp prose stylists.”

    Reply
  11. joylene

    I like your last attempt. I also like Michael’s. And yeah, what’s with this obsession with first lines? Lot’s of great first liners come from books that fall short.

    After 3 agents, I’m now agentless; it’s disconcerting, but works for me. Yours sounds like she wants to help.

    I owe a lot of reviews, so it’ll be awhile before I’m able to read The Clovis Incident, but I’m excited about it.

    Merry Christmas.

    Reply
  12. pari

    Rob,Thanks for taking this discussion further with the 1st/3rd person perspective.

    I think what I’ve learned in this process is what you’ve expressed so well: “The point is, you want your readers, from the very beginning, to wonder what’s going on, or what has just happened or what’s about to happen. Not in a confused way, but in a curious way.”

    Yep. That’s it. I just thought I had to do it by beating my chest.

    Reply
  13. pari

    Joylene,My agent IS trying to help. And I trust him. That’s why I’m reworking the beginning again. It’s not like having a family member or an inexperienced writer say, “I just don’t like the beginning.” He came up with specifics in context of the entire book and why he was suggesting changes.

    Again, I don’t think any of them are major — just more and more work. Argh.

    Reply
  14. billie

    I love “perfect” first lines – i.e. ones that draw me in, and at the end of the book make even more sense than when I started.

    That said, if I open a book and the first line isn’t one of those grabbers, it doesn’t necessarily put me off the book. Title, cover, flap copy, author’s rep if not debut, and actually the entire first page figure in.

    But I think you’re right – if the book is in the voice of the mc character, it’s more important that that first line hold some weight.

    Great stuff to think about, Pari – thanks for your insights!

    Reply
  15. Louise Ure

    I adore first lines … and first pages. As a reader, a novel’s opening will seal the deal for me. David Corbett’s BLOOD OF PARADISE is a good example. I read the first three pages six times before I moved on to the rest of the book.

    It’s all about voice. And about hooking the reader with a character or situation they can’t walk away from.

    And yeah, I’m pretty chuffed about my opening pages. LIARS ANONYMOUS, the next book, starts with:

    “I got away with murder once, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen again. Damn. This time I didn’t do it. Well, not much of it anyway.”

    Reply
  16. Jim

    It’s important to orient the reader as quickly as possible to who, what and where–preferably in the first paragraph if possible. The substance, to me, if more important to starting the story than some catchy string of prose. One of my novels starts out:

    The young woman shifted the half-empty cup of Zinfandel to her left hand, set the cruise control of the car at 105, and dimmed the dashboard lights until the gauges disappeared entirely. With the interior of the vehicle now in total darkness, the black desert nightscape took on an even greater surrealistic edge as the headlights punched through it.

    This answers the WWW and anchors the reader right off the bat with a visual picture. When a reader understands what the author is writing, they’re more prone to keep following along. Just my $.02.

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  17. Rae

    It’s not so much the first line in a book that’s important for me: it’s the first scene. Whether that scene is one line, one paragraph or one chapter long, it needs to be well-written and grab my interest. Something has to occur to make me want to figure out what’s happening in the world the story is laying out.

    I agree with Stephen, that too many writers give us first lines that are meant to grab us, but then don’t really deliver. And these ‘grabby’ first lines are often completely disconnected from the rest of the story, which is a bit odd.

    Having said that, two of my favorite first lines are:

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, JRR Tolkien. I immediately wanted to know: what’s a hobbit? Why do they live in holes? And before I noticed it, I was about a hundred pages into the book, and completely captivated.

    And, “I was arrested in Eno’s diner”, Lee Child. I wanted to know why? Did Reacher actually do anything wrong? What was he going to do about it? Again, I was about a hundred pages into the story before I figured out what was going on, but that first line really pulled me in.

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  18. Dana King

    Others have summed up my thoughts, so I’m just lending support. I like openings, but they rarely kill a book for me. I like for them to set a mood, a voice, or ask a question I want to know the answer to. They can just as easily be the first step down the slippery slope that pulls me hopelessly into the story. The opening can be a lot of things; it just can’t be off-putting.

    My favorite opening scene is from JOhn McFetridge’s EVERYONE KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE: A john and a hooker are sitting in his car negotiating a blow job when a man falls off the building next to them and lands on the windshield. Neither the john or the hooker has much of a place in the rest of the book; the falling man is the hook, but what a way to get your attention to him.

    The greatest first line I have ever read is from Declan Hughes’s THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD: On the night of my mother’s funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth, and asked me to find her husband.

    That was a book I HAD to read.

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  19. J.T. Ellison

    I’m going to lend support too — I like the look at the opening scene, not just the words themselves. If I’m looking at the words, then I’m not drawn into the story right away, which IS a deal breaker for me. I don’t remember first lines – heck, I don’t remember my own, I always have to go look them up. My goal is to draw the reader in, give the something that makes them want to read the next line, and the next, and turn the page. Pari, your book always do that for me, so you’re obviously doing something right.

    Reply
  20. J.D. Rhoades

    What Rae and JT said: the first line may not grab me, but the first scene better. It should set the tone, the voice, everything.

    I’m in a Classical mood these days so I’m thinking of that great first line from Homer:

    “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.” The rest of the story is just elaboration on that.

    Reply
  21. pari

    Billie,Thanks for your comments.

    I was worried that this topic was too basic, but it felt like such a revelation to me that I had to share.

    Reply
  22. pari

    Jim,I think you’re right about grounding the reader, however if a writer tries to contain too much in that first couple of paragraphs, it might make the flow stilted.

    It’s a difficult balance to strike and one of the big challenges with beginnings.

    Reply
  23. pari

    Rae,This is another excellent way to think about it: The first scene.

    I like that.

    Great examples, BTW. Thank you for sharing them with us.

    Reply
  24. pari

    J.T.,Thank you for that.

    I guess what I’m learning to do with this new series is hook without using a bucket of worms . . .

    For Sasha, that wouldn’t work because of who she is and how she speaks/moves in the world.

    Reply
  25. pari

    Yep, Dusty, you’ve got it.

    I really like the whole scene-setting approach. It’s framing it differently for me and helping me think in broader strokes.

    Reply
  26. Allison Brennan

    I love a good opening, but for me it’s the first impression, the first page, the rhythm of the story that grabs me. A good first line is nice, but a poor first line isn’t a deal breaker.

    I like the third new line too, Pari.

    My favorite first line that I wrote was from my novella, “Blood isn’t red.” I had to argue with my editor who wanted to change it to “Blood wasn’t red.” since the book is in past tense. But I was making a statement (through my character) and I wanted it to have more impact, so stetted the change.

    In THE BRASS VERDICT, Michael Connelly starts with “Everybody lies.” Great opening . . . and the original opening of my book PLAYING DEAD until I changed it to “Claire was an expert bullshit detector” because it fit better with her character. JD Robb has fantastic opening lines–some of the best I’ve ever read. In CREATION IN DEATH, for example, it was “For him, death was a vocation.” In SURVIVOR IN DEATH, “A late-night urge for an orange fizzie saved Nixie’s life.” Every opening line in her books are fabulous and fit her voice and the story.

    Reply
  27. Cornelia Read

    These are all great first lines, and I love your third one, Pari.

    Mine for the next book is (well–cheating–first two lines):

    So here’s what I love about New York City: if someone acts like a dumb asshole and you call them on acting like a dumb asshole, the bystanders are happy about it.

    Anywhere else I’ve ever lived, they just think I’m a bitch.

    Reply
  28. pari

    Allison,I’m really enjoying this discussion. The examples you cite are all fantastic in their own way; that’s the key, to make it work for that particular book.

    “Blood isn’t red.” What a doozy. If it were in past tense, it’d be diluted. You were right to fight on that one.

    Cornelia,Again, you’ve done me no favors. When I read your opening, I spit out the fizzy water I was drinking all over my keyboard.

    Seriously, I’ve now got several bones to pick with you . . .

    Reply
  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Great post. I DO like opening lines. Not just because of their attention-grabbing properties, because I’ve read a number of opening lines that, clearly, were written just for that purpose and are too self-conscious about it.

    Not just for the voice, either, although to me that’s the most vital part of whether you love a writer and their work or not.

    But, most of all, opening lines signify the jumping-off point into the story that the writer has chosen for the reader. And that, to me, is the most interesting aspect.

    My own latest WIP has the following opening (two) sentences:

    ‘Nothing brings home a sense of your own mortality like being locked up alone in the dark.

    ‘Which was, of course, precisely why they’d done it.’

    And yeah, I like your third opening best. It’s a more relaxed introduction to the character, signifies Darnda’s change of voice from Sasha, and tells you a lot about the kind of person she is, in a way that the other two didn’t.

    Keep hitting that punchbag, by all means, but don’t quit writing, whatever you do!

    Reply
  30. pari

    Zoe,Thank you for those encouraging words.

    I’m surprised and pleased that everyone responded so well to my third attempt. Makes me think . . .

    You’re right about openers that are too self-conscious. That’s an astute observation.

    BTW: I very much like the opening two lines of your WIP. Very much indeed.

    And I felt incredibly discouraged for a few days, but am back in the saddle again.

    Reply

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