1. Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
Absolutely. I think that first line sets the tone for what’s to come; it grabs (or doesn’t) the reader’s attention and gets them invested enough to read on. While I think that there’s value in a more subtle approach, where the suspense, or the drama or whatever the author is going for, builds slowly, I for one ain’t very subtle. I prefer an opening line that somehow strikes a chord with a reader. Whether it’s through an emotion or action that the reader identifies with, or it feels like a punch in the gut, but in a good way, that first line to me makes all the difference.
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 know this will sound like bragging, but I find it very easy to come up with a first line that, from everything I’ve been told by the various readers of those lines, grabs the reader’s attention and gets them engaged early on. But that has actually been something of a curse for me. Here I am in my 50’s, a newly minted published author, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I could actually think of myself as a true writer, because for the first time I actually put something to go along with the first line. I’ve been pushed to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but for a variety of reasons, none of them really any good, I preferred to ignore the one area where I seem to have the most talent.
Except in the period between when I wrote my first “novel” at the age of 10, roughly 1969 and 2006, that desire to write would come bubbling up, and I would sit down with a story in mind, and then I would crank out a first line to start. Then, I might add a few paragraphs, and in a couple of other cases, a fair number of pages. In short, I was a GREAT starter. Not so great on finishing, however. And I think part of that stems from the fact that it is easy for me to think of a good first line.
As far as technique? I wish I could tell you I had one, but I don’t. I have a vague story idea; sometimes it’s even more than vague, the story arc being fully formed in my head, with a beginning and at least an end. Based on whatever that idea was, I would write a first line that followed the general guideline I set out earlier, trying to grab the reader’s attention.
3. What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
With any book, there’s a sort of contract between the author and reader. The author promises to deliver a story that the reader will find engaging, and if they live up to that, the reader more or less promises to stick with that author even when there might be a paragraph, or page that lags a bit. But with a badly written first line, the terms of that contract suddenly tilt into the reader’s favor, because the burden of proof that the author will live up to the terms of that contract just became much, much larger. Essentially, with that first badly written line, the author now has a hole to climb out of in order to deliver the goods, as it were. If that’s followed up by another one, or one after that, the burden becomes inestimably higher.
Like any author, I’m an avid reader as well, and I think every reader has had an experience with a book where the only thing that keeps you plodding on is the fact that you spent a certain amount of money on the title, and the hope that somewhere in the pages ahead, you’ll recoup your investment. So you read on with the grim determination of a musher in the Iditarod who’s racing through a blizzard, determined that you’re going to get something out of this, damn it!
No author wants their reader to feel that way. And, truth be known, in this digital age where books are only a couple of bucks, or even (gulp) free, that determination to get some sort of payoff is even more short-lived.
4. What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
It was dark and cold, the only light coming from the crack under the ill-fitting door.
As first lines go, in and of itself it’s not great literature, but it’s the first line of “Reilly’s Luck”, by Louis L’Amour, the first of his books that I’ve read, beginning a lifelong love affair with his works, and with an author who was not only a huge influence on me as a writer, but whose hard-boiled, pragmatic outlook served as the kind of wisdom that a young boy without a father needed. Even now, after reading every one of his books, I still rank Reilly’s Luck as my favorite, and one of his best. Will Reilly taught me more on how to be a man than any other single influence in my life, which is probably a somewhat sad statement, but is true nonetheless.
Worst line? Nah. Honestly I can’t remember any line that sticks out so much that I can recite it. Unless it’s Snoopy’s classic, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
5. What is one of your own best first lines?
Well, that’s kind of tough; which one of your kids do you love the most? And I will say that with Marching With Caesar-Conquest of Gaul (available on Amazon.com. Barnesandnoble.com, and smashwords.com, not that I’m shilling my book or anything), I’ve been fortunate to receive a large number of reviews in a relatively short period of time, and the response has been more positive than I could have dreamed. But one common theme in the reviews has been, “I was hooked from the first line.”
So I guess that should mean I would put that one down. But there’s another one, from the book I completed in 2006 that, according to about the 30-odd people who have read it, would seem to be my best one. I will say that it’s the line that means the most to me, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it got some significant interest from three different agents. However, at the last minute I decided to withdraw the book from consideration, because of the pain it would cause people I love a great deal. Ultimately, I think of all the books I write, it will be this book that I will point to and say, “THAT is the one I want to be known by.” But I will have to wait until a later time so that what might be my best book doesn’t cause the most heartache.
With that in mind, here it is:
I was conceived in desperation and born in anger, spat out of my mother’s womb as a guided missile, with a target and a mission that I neither chose nor even understood until it was too late.
More than one of my readers likened this to being punched in the stomach. While I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I do know that it kept them reading.
6. We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
Okay, my worst first line is burned into my memory, mainly because it was my very FIRST first line. When I was 10, I wrote a “novel” about the Soviet invasion of the U.S……..focused entirely on my street, in Houston, Texas. Yes, the entire effort of the dirty Commies’ attempt to crush the good ol’ U.S. of A. came right down my street.
And it would have been successful too, but they just happened to pick the wrong bunch of 10 year olds, as we singlehandedly fought the might of the Soviet horde, armed with WWII-vintage weapons (that was the period of history I was obsessed with at that time) to a standstill.
So with that in mind, I present to you my very first, and my very worst first line. (Audible gulp)
This was no game, this was war!!!!!!
(I think it was six exclamation points, but it could have been more. That’s how the reader knew it was a very serious situation and I wasn’t just kidding around.)
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?
Uh, it shouldn’t be bad? Sorry, can’t resist the occasional smartass comment. Although I haven’t given the matter a whole lot of deep thought, I have some immediate observations and ideas that bubble up. And while I can’t immediately point to any specific first line in any first book, I think that others will understand what I’m saying.
I don’t think a first line should be an attempt by the author to dazzle the reader with their literary brilliance. No matter what the subject matter is, any work, whether it’s one of “literary fiction” (whatever the hell that means) or stories of the zombie apocalypse mashed up with fairies and elves, the author is telling a story. And any first line that doesn’t serve as the first building block of that story is one of those things that shouldn’t happen.
I’ve seen too many cases where the author seeks to show his chops at crafting a sentence that I’m sure in his mind will be the first thing that’s mentioned in his Pulitzer Prize citation, yet has no real connection to the story. To me, it’s a form of the “smartest guy in the room” syndrome, where the author is more concerned with showing off and not in telling a story.
Yeah, I guess that does rub me the wrong way.
8. Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
Don’t take this the wrong way, but of all the questions I get, I hate those that ask me for some sort of advice to pass on to other writers. Although it has nothing to do with not giving away any “trade secrets” that I see some other writers cite, since I don’t view other writers as competition as much as I do colleagues, it’s more about who am I to give advice? Like a lot of other “indie” authors, I’m self-published, but unlike some of my colleagues I don’t mind saying I’m self-published, but that probably has more to do with the fact that my book is selling well, especially for a self-published first attempt. The fact that I didn’t try to find a publisher very hard and after surveying the landscape decided that I could make a go of it on my own has something to do with it as well.
Even so, I’m somewhat leery of offering advice simply because I could be a one-hit wonder, and I AM self-published when all is said and done. With all that said, I guess all I can really offer is, go with your gut. You know what resonates with you as a reader; you also know what doesn’t. What captures your attention when you read a book? What are the elements that captivate you in the first line of a story?
Once you identify that, then do that.
As far as advice I’ve heard, I can’t really recall anything. Sorry.
Marching With Caesar-Conquest of Gaul is a first-person narrative, written in the form of a memoir as dictated to a scribe of Titus Pullus, Legionary, Optio, First Spear Centurion of Caesar’s 6th and 10th Legion. The memoir is written three years after his retirement as Camp Prefect, when Titus is 61 years old.
Titus, along with his boyhood friend Vibius Domitius, joins the 10th Legion in the draft of 61 BC, when Gaius Julius Caesar is the governor of Spain. Titus and Vibius are assigned to a tent group, with seven other men who will become their closest friends during their times in the legion. Titus, Vibius and their comrades endure the harsh training regimen that made the legions the most feared military force in the ancient world. The 10th Legion is blooded in a series of actions in Spain, led by Caesar in a campaign that was the true beginning of one of the most brilliant military careers in history.
Three years after joining the legions, the 10th is called on again, this time to be part of the subjugation of Gaul, one of the greatest feats of arms in any period of history. During the subsequent campaigns, the 10th cements its reputation as Caesar’s most favored and trusted legion, and is involved in most of the major actions during this period.
This first book of a completed trilogy closes with Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and the 10th preparing to march to war, this time against fellow Romans.
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