Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
The first line is of critical importance. I can spend weeks—no, months—creating then revising a novel’s first line. Like all of us, readers lead busy lives. If a story’s opening doesn’t usher her into a world promising adventures far better than real world enjoyments, why should she continue?
Treasure Me begins with the dialogue
“Where are you? Give me back my wallet!”
for a variety of reasons. For starters, dialogue is the true action in a work of fiction, a kick-start of adrenaline to draw your eyes down the page. Then there’s the dialogue’s content. In this case, I wanted to clue the reader in to the protagonist’s chosen career, but I wanted to do so in a light and humorous way. Birdie Kaminsky is no reprobate. She’s sassy and rude and damn amusing at times. But her impudent behavior hides the battered heart of a young woman hungry for meaning in her life, and for family.
Do you find first lines easy to come up with, or challenging? Do you have a technique, or a ritual, that you employ to make it easy?
I spent years writing ad copy in my PR firm, and nearly as many years writing fiction. Long ago I learned not to second-guess choices in art or direction; far better to let ideas germinate. I rarely settle on the final version of a novel’s first line until the book has been written, revised, torn apart and revised again. Treasure Me was a rarity in that much of the first scene—including the opening line—arrived one morning in a mad flurry of typing. When I read the scene to my critique group, my voice was barely audible above the wild cackles and bursts of laughter.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
The reader will think, “Why should I bother?” If we possess the temerity to assume anyone should read our words, we’d damn well better make the story enjoyable from the get-go.
What’s the favorite first line you’ve read? Can you recall the worst?
Please don’t ask me to choose a favorite among the literary greats. Here are a few:
Call me Ishmael.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh’s wife and Dee’s mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk.
—The Mermaid Chair
The worst first lines? I can’t recall. Those novels are dismissed from my consciousness like stale news.
What is one of your own best first lines?
I’m particularly fond of this opening, from a novel I’ll release in 2013:
It pains me to admit that my self-imposed exile was broken by the lure of Istanbul.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
I haven’t a clue. Prior to moving to Charleston, South Carolina last year, I tossed all the detritus from a failed marriage, years of childrearing, countless tries at novels attempted in my youth—I cleared a 5,000 square foot house of all but the essentials needed to begin a new phase of life. It was a freeing experience, like a signal to the Universe that I’d matured as a career novelist and would now travel lightly but with much more impact.
What are some things a first line shouldn’t be? What are some things you’ve read in first lines that really rubs you the wrong way?
Passive voice. Needless backstory. Awkward phrasing. Here’s a good rule for beginning novelists: Write the entire first draft with your internal editor turned off. After, read through and make a first pass at editing. Then print out the second draft and study the first paragraphs of Chapter Three.
That’s right—skip Chapters One and Two, and study Three. Ask yourself, “Is this the true beginning of my novel? Is the perfect opening line hidden in the text like a gem waiting to be unearthed?” On a surprisingly number of occasions, our faithful scribe will answer with a resounding, “Yes!”
Some writers are gifted with an unusual life and I’m certainly one of those. I’ve lived in Ohio, Virginia, California, Utah and now South Carolina. In college I was featured on the front page of the Houston Post for a lark that erased all my debt. I met my four adopted children for the first time in the sweltering heat of the tropics. I helped build several companies and was lucky enough to earn a living doing what I love best—writing—in a PR firm I owned.
If you’re wondering about beginnings, here they are: I’m the middle child in a litter of six kids raised in Cleveland, Ohio during the psychedelic 60s. My late mother swore I taught myself to read at the age of two. While this claim stands unsubstantiated, I can tell you that rare were the times during childhood when I didn’t tote a book in one hand, and pen and paper in the other. I’ve been writing ever since.
In 2004, I made the wisest and most irrational decision of my life—I began writing fiction full-time. All those years of hard work pay off daily in sweet notes and comments by readers. Please continue the mail, tweets and comments on FaceBook, GoodReads and other sites. I cherish your support and love chatting with readers.
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