Critique, Fiction, Words, Writing

First … or foremost?

Disclaimer: the following rant is not to belittle the concept of peer critique. It’s merely to point out that we should all temper our critique comments with a little common sense.

In the last few weeks, I participated on a critique blog submitting first paragraphs and the first 1,000 words, but I passed when the call was for first lines. Originally, this was because I keep revising said line, but now I’m happy I couldn’t decide on one. The reason why? After reading through the comments I realized I had been totally ignorant of this Rule of All Rules: If the first line of your book doesn’t knock the socks off everyone who reads it—you’ll never get published!

Did you know that? It must be true because everyone says so. Ahem. After reading dozens of these comments on those submitted first lines, I’m thinking, Really? If someone opened their book with this line, you wouldn’t read one bit further? Really?

Now, it’s true your opening needs to be interesting. You have to entice your reader somehow. But it’s going to be just a hint of what’s to come. Just a bon mot. And it truly may be just the use of one good word that snags the reader’s eye and pulls her along to the next line, and the next, and before she knows it, she’s turning the page.

Well, guess what? This is a shocker … are you ready? Here goes … not every book begins with a killer first line! Don’t believe me? Go to the nearest book shelf and pull down a few and see for yourself.

It was bad enough when comments on the first paragraph crit-blog said essentially, “You didn’t tell us EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING in this first paragraph, so I wouldn’t read on.” Okayyyy … but wait, it’s only one paragraph! How much more unrealistic is it to expect every book’s first line to send you into rapture?

It seems to me, judging any novel by its “first” anything is unrealistic. Readers picking up a published book, always read the jacket flap or back cover blurb, don’t they? And even agents or editors read the query or synopsis first. So basing the whole worth of a book on the first line or paragraph or page is speculative at best and unfair to the writer at worst.

The following are the opening sentences of eight books I pulled off my shelves. None of these lines are bad, but I doubt they’d get great comments on a crit-blog (well, maybe one or two of them would). I’ll bet you’ve read these books or, at least, are aware they were huge best sellers, and some even won Pulitzers.

  • “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.”
  • “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.”
  • “Sally.”
  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
  • “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”
  • “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”
  • “I arrived in the truck very early in the morning.”
  • “London.”
  • Certainly, there are books with fabulous opening sentences. Some so perfect you may remember them long after forgetting the rest of the book, but ask yourself this question, the very first time you opened that book and read the line “Call me Ishmael.” did it really blow you away?

    7 thoughts on “First … or foremost?”

    1. Wow, I’m slipping on responding to the brilliant comments by my adoring readers (ahem). Glad to know I have company on this. Now, can we make the agents hear us?

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    2. The paranoia over the first five pages is expanding. It’s almost like those first few thousand words have become a sort of bizarre literary version of a movie trailer – all hints, intrigues, and explosions.

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