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A Last Word about First Lines

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How appropos that I should receive the May 2007 edition of The Writer in the mail today which has a wonderful “archive” article by Tony Hillerman in it in which he wrote:

“No matter how carefully you have the project planned, first chapters tend to demand rewriting. Things happen. New ideas suggest themselves, new possibilities intrude. Slow to catch on, I collected a manila folder full of perfect, polished, exactly right, pear-shaped first chapters before I learned this lesson. Their only flaw is that they don’t fit the book I finally wrote. Thus Hillerman’s First Law: Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.”


So the last word on first lines is: don’t kill yourself to write the perfect first line until you’ve finished your story. Now for those of us who are SOTP (seat of the pants) writers, this means finishing the entire first draft. For people who are meticulous outliners, this means once the outline is completed and you are happy with all of the details of your story.

When I wrote the first opening chapter for my work in progress (WIP) A Major Event Inc. (which at that time I had tagged Maid of Honor, because I wasn’t sure where I was going with it), I erroneously had it opening at what I now know is one of the pivitol events of the story—the wedding of the couple from Happy Endings Inc. People who’d read HEI were thrilled to get to see the wedding. People who hadn’t (including my crit partners Georgiana and Erica) were confused by all the names and how all of the characters knew each other and (in some cases) were related to each other. I also incorporated a trick that I thought was cute but just came across as annoying to readers—giving enough information that they knew it was a wedding and that the POV female character was wearing a “gown” and was extremely nervous, leading them to think for a moment that it was HER wedding, then revealing after a couple of pages that she was the maid of honor in the wedding, not the bride. Sure, leading the reader astray—especially when it increases the tension of a scene—can be a good technique. But not in the opening paragraphs, I’ve learned.

That first first chapter was written to submit for workshop critiques my last residency of grad school. I then set it aside to concentrate on completing the first draft of Ransome’s Honor. Once RH was completed, I turned my attention back to AMEI. From the feedback I received from Georgiana and Erica, I knew I had to figure out a better way to start it, and for story purposes, I knew I had to start it much earlier. So I ended up writing a second first chapter, which I liked SO much better.

I claim to not be good at writing first chapters, in fact, by the time I’m halfway through a manuscript, I’m usually itching to go back and rewrite the first few chapters to fit the story twists better. But I do have to say that one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve ever done was the original first chapter for Ransome’s Honor, which I continually get positive feedback on. There are a couple of little things that need to be tweaked (taking out a character who is mistakenly assumed to be the heroine in the hero’s POV opening scene and figuring out how to either explain or take out some of the shipboard terminology). And there are about six or seven chapters that follow that first chapter that are going to be skinned down to the bone, boiled down to gelatin, and remade into something that will glue the first chapter to the last 2/3 of the book with the way it turned out.

An exercise that really helped me rework and cut down the first chapter of Happy Endings Inc. was having to choose a twenty-minute reading from the manuscript last June before graduating. When I read the first chapter out loud at home, timing myself, I realized that after reading for twenty minutes, I have barely gotten my heroine out of her office and to the restaurant where she’s supposed to be going on a blind date (who stands her up) and where she gets the first glimpse of the hero. Being completely honest, I was bored with it. There was no way I was going to subject my friends and classmates to that! I ended up choosing a passage from the middle when the heroine learns the identity of the man she’s planning the wedding for. And then I revised the first two chapters—ended up taking them from two down to one, much tighter, faster-moving chapter.

For an exercise: read the first chapter of your novel aloud with an audience in mind—whether you picture yourself reading it to a group of other writers or reading it before a book signing (keeping in mind you want people to be so intrigued they will want to buy it). Does it introduce the character without spending too much time on the character? Does the action of the story start immediately? Are you dropping hints of the intrigue, the romance, the suspense, the thrills to come?

Next time, we’ll start looking at last scenes/lines . . .

6 Comments
  1. Wednesday, April 11, 2007 6:28 am

    You can’t know how much this entry has helped me today. I’ve become so mired in grief over my opening chapter of the lastest work. What I wrote six months ago and thought was “good” now doesn’t work for me.

    It’s a relief to know that’s not unusual.

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  2. Wednesday, April 11, 2007 11:29 am

    This has been another great course for me. I’ve just been wrestling over rearranging chapters in the WIP, and this has given me hope. Thank you!

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  3. Wednesday, April 11, 2007 1:45 pm

    First chapters take me a LONG time and many revisions to get right. It’s so true that the story usually takes a turn I didn’t expect, rendering the first chapter moot. First lines? Easy. First chapters–a long work in progress.

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  4. Thursday, April 12, 2007 4:53 am

    So very true! The first line is always the hardest for me to write (I’m sure this problem is not exclusive to me). Even at work — where I write economic analysis — I need that one line before everything else comes pouring out of me. It grates me senseless! But thanks for the tips… truly they’ve helped! I’ll be coming back for more 😉

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