1. Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
No. First lines can be an important to set the tone and engage the reader, but not always. They also can help the author get started. I used to think they were critical, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, begins,
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake – not a very big one.
It’s hardly a memorable line, but within a few pages you’re hooked for the next 900. Sometimes I think first lines gain importance retrospectively if the book attains a level of literary acclaim.
2. 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 think first lines can be challenging, but sometimes they just flow. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but it’s the early, exciting stage of a new project, so it’s a fun challenge. It definitely helps to propel me forward. When I’m writing a profile of someone I just interviewed, the opening line is like kick-starting the engine.
I have no technique. I just have feelings that come out as words.
3. What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
If by badly written, you mean poorly constructed, cumbersome, convoluted or otherwise confusing – it’s sudden death. Your book goes back on the shelf or the reader flips to the next article in the magazine. This pertains mostly to unknown and amateur authors. But a first line is like a first impression. It’s why supermarkets put fresh produce in the entrance. A badly written opening line tells the reader that either you have no talent or you don’t care, either way, it won’t be read.
4. What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
Tough question. Some of my favorite books have uneventful first lines, but they introduce some powerful first paragraphs. I recently read “Stiff – The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach. Her opening line is funny and sets the tenor of the book,
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.
5. What is one of your own best first lines?
It’s the one I wrote for an upcoming novel, but I can’t reveal it just yet.
6. We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
Did the sun just come out or did you just smile at me?
(hey I’m a writer and an ex-cop; I’ve spent a lot of time in bars)
7. 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?
I think it’s obvious when a first line is trying too hard to be a first line. It’s as if you can tell the writer placed too much importance on it and consequently over-wrote it. They shouldn’t be distinct from the initial experience. It really doesn’t matter how good it is, as long as it isn’t bad.
One of my pet peeves in magazine articles or blogs is when a writer opens with a definition. “Websters defines success as…” Shoot me.
8. Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
I’m a fan of longer, cumulative sentences, but I think there is a danger if your first line is too long. If it’s going to be long, it better be brilliant. It should be good enough to hold the reader’s interest through the next line, then the opening sequence. If you can grab the reader there, within that opening scene, you’re well on your way. My advice is to make it very good, make it a perfect sentence, not necessarily a memorable one. “Call me Ishmael,” by itself, doesn’t do it for me. If that line were followed by a dreadful book, no one would have ever said, “Too bad the book was lousy; it had a great opening line.”
For an unknown author or an amateur, it’s better for the first line to be polished than remarkable.
A book is an experience. It begins with a great cover, an intriguing title, then a well-crafted opening line that leads the reader thru a portal into the world of the story. It should be a part of the experience, like a professional butler who leads you into a magnificent home; you’re there for the home not the butler, but it helps. That being said, rarely do first lines remain a part of our literary memory if the rest of the book was mediocre.
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