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. “I awoke to a naked man holding a knife to my throat.”

      That is what is being taught these days: jarring opening sentences. They don’t work for me though. It seems a shallow way to hook my attention, and if it has a shallow beginning, what will the rest look like. I like a book that doesn’t try too hard to look good. I like a book that is confidently good.

      Like a blind date, which do you want a long term relationship with? The poofed-haired jewelry clad pimp ride (man or woman fit this image), dragging you along to pretentious places, meeting pretentious people who are easy to forget? (Okay, there are some people who like this, but I’m talking more than one night here.)Or do you want someone more intimate, someone that speaks to you, not at you?

      Most of my bookshelves are filled with the “to you” and a few “at yous” sprinkled in for a cheap thrill.

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    2. Here! Here! It is belittling to think that I won’t buy a book if the first sentence doesn’t grab me. I read the synopsis blurb sometimes, sometimes I just flip through and get an idea of the style of the writing. The first page, the first sentence…fohgetaboutit….that’s the launching point, the build up for the whole shebang, I don’t expect to be thrilled there. (hhm, sounds like premature …nevermind) and who likes THAT?!! Not man or woman.

      I was annoyed about that in critique too, TELL ME MORE! TELL me more. Some things are pointless to tell, (a random persons name who will not be anywhere else in the story) and other info… well it’s coming up…. bloody well wait. Everyone wants the whole enchilada in one bite these days. Disgusting in dining and not appealing in a book either.

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    3. “You didn’t tell us EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING in this first paragraph, so I wouldn’t read on.”

      I particularly loathe that kind of “criticism.”

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    4. So true, Linda. Same is true for a first chapter. It’s like, you didn’t tell me her entire life story in the first chapter. Just wait, people. It’s coming.

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    5. IQOkie expressed my thoughts on this with the blind date analogy. When I read “I’ve Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen…”, it took me over 40 pages to really commit–and it was worth it.
      I think we’re seeing the effects of the cultural shift to “surfing” through life. Media shoots a staggering amount of “input” at us–some worth savoring and a lot of it: loads and loads of empty, mindless clutter littering the super highway. With so much to sift through, people “surf” until something just immediately titillates the senses and they stop to see what it is. If it doesn’t get past the thresh-hold of their interest within 15 seconds (at best), they move on.
      My hope: that it will leave them feeling empty and hungry for quality reading to sooth and regenerate their Twitter-weary, sound-byte riddled minds.
      It does provoke me to wrestle with this and see if we as writers can redeem this trend. Can we take this as a challenge to serve up that hook and pull them along for a meaningful, quality read without compromising who we are and what we create. Hmmmm…(wheels are turning in my mind.)

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