Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
I do consider the first line to be important, as a really good one can grab a reader and, hopefully, begin a promise to not let go. However, a weak first line doesn’t necessarily mean a bad book. It very well could mean there was no better way to start.
Do you find first lines easy to come up with, or challenging? Do you have a technique, or a ritual, that you go by to make it easy?
I don’t think much about first lines, to be honest. I let them evolve. My technique is to write something down, then mold it into shape through the revision process. Because my first draft method is to write garbage until I figure out where the story’s going and then go back and craft the beginning to match the end – which isn’t nearly as backwards as it sounds – the first line is one of the LAST things I consider.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
A lot of readers put all their faith in that one lonely line. That’s too bad because they may be limiting themselves. I mean, think about it. If a book is 100,000 words but the first ten aren’t spectacular, aren’t you possibly being a bit premature in your judgement?
In some ways, our instant-gratification society has gotten a bit out of control.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
I can’t place famous movie quotes and unless it’s Metallica (and even sometimes regardless if it’s Metallica), I can’t take a song lyric out of context and identify it. Same problem with first lines. I couldn’t even tell you the first line from a book I’ve read a million times, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
What is one of your own best first lines?
That would be in Trevor’s Song. The first line is the famed eleven-letter word that rhymes with mother trucker.
Yep. A bit of a shocker, there, but it’s also typical Trevor. He’s not one to settle in anything, including his frustrated outbursts.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
I do a LOT of bad first lines, just because of how I work. A lot of them remain on my blog, even, because I often post first-draft fiction in response to a writing prompt, or just because I feel like it. I think my blog character, Chelle LaFleur, has really bad first lines; many of them start in the vein of,
Listen up, now, boys and girls, ‘cause Chelle here’s got somethin’ to say.
Are you yawning? I am. You’d think someone who works as an editor would edit her own stuff and come up with something jazzier. I ought to work on that, come to think of it… Poor Chelle. She deserves better.
What are some things a first line *shouldn’t* be? What are some things that you’ve read in first lines that really rubs you the wrong way?
Right now, with trends being what they are, I’d say a first line should NOT be a description of the landscape. The trend is to throw the reader into the action from the first word, so taking time to tell us all about the sunset or the tree that’s been bent by the wind… sure, it’s pretty and pretty writing is always welcome. But on the other hand, a writer also needs to write to their audience, and audiences these days are pretty well conditioned to want action.
Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
The first line, as an art, should tease. It should offer hints of what’s to come and even some foreshadowing, even if all that’s being foreshadowed is the rest of the chapter. For instance, it’s my hope that when you sit down with Trevor’s Song, that one-word first line will make you curious about what he’s so hyper about. Sure, you’ll learn later on that Trevor swears like a truck driver (or the foul-mouthed rock star he is), but he also doesn’t use that word much. He chose it because it’s expressing the intensity of his emotion. He’s frustrated, worried, maybe a bit scared and definitely trying to deny the panic that’s rising.
Do you have any final words?
No, because we’re talking first lines here, not last lines.
Although, I had a friend in graduate school who always said that the first line sells your current book, and your last line sells the next one.
Make of that what you will.
Susan Helene Gottfried is the author of ShapeShifter: The Demo Tapes — Year 1, ShapeShifter: The Demo Tapes — Year 2, Trevor’s Song, ShapeShifter: The Demo Tapes — Year 3, and King Trevor. A tone-deaf rocker-at-heart, Susan worked in retail record stores, in radio stations, as stage crew, and as a promoter while earning two college degrees in creative writing.
Susan walked away from a continued career in the music industry in order to write books, so it makes sense that most of her fiction revolves around rock bands. Once you get those record stores, radio stations, and fellow roadies and promoters under your skin, they never leave.
To fill her time, Susan takes on freelance line and copy editing from various clients.
Susan’s Website: http://westofmars.com