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Posts Tagged ‘editing wip’

chatperoneThe beginning of your story is the most important part.  This applies no matter what you are writing; an epic trilogy, a novel, a short story, memoire, fiction or nonfiction.

Now that I said it, I will tell you that this is a statement I personally do not agree with.

Some writers, publishers, and agents will argue that if you don’t hook the reader in the first sentence then you failed.  I’ve heard variations of this same idea multiple times.

But what kind of a first sentence does it take to have that instant hook?  And, is it even possible?

Advice will run between keeping it short and simple to using a complex sentence including multiple ways to draw the reader in with those few first words.

Set stage and tone, time and place, conflict, theme, foreshadow, tell a truth, surprise the reader,  shock them, promise a reward, don’t start with a question, relate to the reader, do not start with dialogue, be funny or absurd, raise a question, start with an action, incite an emotional reaction, connect the reader with the main character, it must be vivid, offer a tease, introduce your main character, get them fascinated with the scene, sum up the novel.

This is only a sampling of the advice you might see on how to write the perfect first sentence.  None of it is either wrong or right.  It’s also probably impossible for you to pack all of that into a single sentence without making it incredibly long and unwieldy.

As with everything about writing and every other form of art what is good, or as seems to be demanded of us the perfect reader trap, is subjective to the individual’s taste.  And each individual’s tastes are determined by too many factors to count, including their personal tastes and preferences, culture, experiences, and so much more.

So who is to say what is the perfect opening sentence?

Best First Lines from Published Novels

Consider this list: “100 Best First Lines from Novels” by American Book Review.  How many of these lines made the list simply because of who the author is or because the book became a classic?  How many of these lines would even be considered for this list if they had been published today by a less famous author?

Given the single first sentence and no other reference, which first sentence from this list would you have been hooked on, driven to read on?  Of course, many of these lines are dated and were probably red hot in their day.  But it is also too easy to look back and say that first line must have been perfect because the book was a classic.  For me, more than a few of these invoke a response of “meh”.  So they are certainly someone’s perfect first line, but not mine.

So ask yourself this: if you take the top 100 current worldwide bestsellers and poll a group on a list of only that first sentence with no reference to the author or what book it was taken from, how many would be voted as perfect first lines?  How many would instantly hook the reader, driving him or her helplessly forward to read the rest of the book?

The publishing world is full of books of every type.  Those whose perfect first line went on to set the tone for a fantastic piece of writing, those that fall flat into abysmal blandness after a great opening line, those whose opening line was only the opening to something that draws you in and hooks you as you continue, those that flop on every level, and everything in between.

Let’s face it; it takes much more than an epic first line to make a story a success.  And there are very few readers who would stop at the first line and make a judgment without reading further.

The internet is full of advice on how to write that perfect first sentence that Snaps, pops, and otherwise grabs your reader’s attention and refuses to let go.  Even WikiHow gets in on the action.  But as you research how to make that first line that promises to make your story and career soar to unimaginable heights, you will also quickly learn that this advice is neither absolute nor universal.

Here are just a few articles on writing the first line:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/09/writer-wednesday-first-sentences_n_820512.html

http://thewritepractice.com/first-line/

http://www.missliterati.com/blog/tips-on-writing-first-sentence

http://www.fuelyourwriting.com/the-most-important-sentence-how-to-write-a-killer-opening/

http://writeworld.org/post/26731524562/in-the-beginning

While some people tell you that first line is all important, others will argue that it is not the first sentence that is the most important; that the first sentence is not the do or die of your story and writing and publishing career.

Like this writer, Chuck Sambuchino, who says this of the often pushed list of alleged literary first line masterpieces, “So here’s the deal, or my theory of the deal:  These authors didn’t worry about the opening sentence; they just started telling their stories.  There has to be a beginning.  That beginning might indicate time and place, might introduce a character.  Might reveal a thought.  Present a fact.  Drop in on some event or action in the middle.  Whatever starts the telling makes the first sentence.  Just as whatever concludes the story will make the last.”

So, how do you write that perfect first sentence?

The best advice I can give you is to just jump in and write the first sentence.  Don’t even think of it as the first sentence.  Just sit down, think about where your story starts, and start writing.  But don’t stop there.  Keep going and write the next sentence and the next.  Keep the momentum going.  Do not let yourself get bogged down and lose the feeling of the narrative worrying over whether or not that first sentence snaps.  If you feel the flow, just keep going and worry about perfection later.

Now put it aside.   Let your mind take a break before you go back to it.

Read it and ask yourself, “Would I read this?”  Does the first sentence do justice to the rest of that first paragraph?  Does that first paragraph make you want to read the next?  Do you feel compelled to turn the page when you reach the bottom?  Do you yearn to learn what happens next when that chapter ends?  Do you feel bored or confused anywhere?

Your first sentence sets the stage for the paragraph.  And the first paragraph draws the reader into the chapter.  But it takes so much more than one person’s opinion of whether or not your first sentence is perfect.  It takes more than the opinions of your writer’s group, your mentor, or even your publisher.

Why?  Because the truth of it is that there is no such thing a perfect first sentence.  I would compare it to the search for the ever-elusive perfect man or the perfect woman.  Every individual’s needs and ideas for what makes that ‘perfect’ are different and ever changing.

From first sentences that invoke emotion to those that set place, time, and mood, the first sentence is only the beginning of something much deeper.  What makes it right depends on what your story needs it to be.  What makes it right is not obsessing over whether or not that first sentence is perfect enough, but rather how it works as a foundation for that first paragraph and the story as a whole.

What makes it perfect is making it feel perfectly natural.

Research what others recommend, take advice from different sources, and most importantly, know that every story is different and that means that what works for each story is different.  Every piece of advice is exactly that, it is that individual’s personal opinion, their recommendation and offered guidance.

Now go out there and write the first sentence that is perfect for your story.

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I get incredibly lazy about character development in my first draft.  This especially happens when it comes to secondary and background characters.

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When I’m in the throes of pounding at that keyboard, the words flowing through my fingertips as the story flourishes, or banging my head on the contraption in frustration, my focus is on the story.  The big question of what happens next is what drives that first draft.

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 In most of my stories I have no better idea than the reader does about what is going to happen next or even who the characters are.  The story often changes from that initial hunch of what it will be about as the events play out.  Hell, I’m just along for the ride, wherever my imagination decides to take us.

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Just like the reader I’m experiencing the story and meeting the characters as the events unfold.

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This is why it is perhaps even more important for someone who writes like I do to never forget that every character is somebody, no matter how small a bit part they play.

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What is more memorable?  The story where everyone is a faceless nameless blank except the three or four main characters?  Or one where old Mrs. Appleblossom down the street always wears a white flower either in her hat or tucked into her button hole, the absence of which could be a hidden (subliminal) hint of trouble to come?

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What about Mr. Commely, who’s only purpose in the story is to deliver the letter that gives your character the bad news?  Does the reader need to know that Mr. Commely has returned to work after retiring because he’s lonely after his wife passed away, that he always has a gentle pat on the head waiting for even the most fiercest of mailman hating dogs on his route, or that his behavior is sometimes strange and erratic? It doesn’t drive the story forward, so some would argue this is just extra words that should be cut.

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The girl serving coffee through the drive through window probably doesn’t need to tell you that she’s having a bad morning.  You can see it in her face.  You don’t know her name and you probably don’t need to.  But you can make the reader wonder why she’s having a bad day.  Did she have a fight with her boyfriend?  Was she reprimanded at work for being late again when she’s dealing with a serious crisis at home?  Maybe she has a parent or child who is deathly ill.  Why she looks unhappy isn’t important to the story.  But just making the reader notice her sadness and wonder about it because your character did draws the reader further into becoming one with and sympathizing with your main character.

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When you go through the drive through yourself, that girl behind the window touches your life when she hands you your coffee and takes your money.  It may only be a thirty-second moment, but those thirty seconds still touch your life.

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None of these bits about small characters drive the story and most of it can be left unsaid, back-story for these people who make only brief appearances.  But dropping these little observations can add a depth of understanding and reality to the world your characters live in.

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If you write with a sense of familiarity will all your characters lives, the reader will pick up on it.  Like watching someone waving to someone walking by from across the parking lot, you can get a sense if they are familiar with each other or just passing a friendly wave to an acquainted stranger.

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Some characters develop through the writing of that first draft.  The main characters mostly get a lot of their character traits and flaws because their reactions and needs are what push the story forward.  But with the rest they are lucky if they get dubbed as “frontdeskguy” or “girl2” as I write.  Sometimes they are nothing more than a mention of “the other guy”.

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As the story unfolds, so do little hints into the characters that show up for repeat appearances.  And as I learn more about where these bit players fall into the story, I also get a better understanding of how each of them can bring more life to the story.

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Like the young man in Men of Twelve (working name of a W.I.P.).  The young man is an unimportant player, like the Start Trek guy who wears red to beam down to the planet.  I know he’s going to die and the reader may get a sense of it too.  That the trees mock him for being a nameless bastard without a father moments before his death does not drive the story, but it does add a layer of depth to the scene and the world the characters live in.

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It’s in the editing, when I go back over the story to re-write, revise, develop more, and delete than I put the emphasis on picking out each character from the biggest to the smallest and give them a little touch of personality.

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Bringing your characters to life brings the story to life.  And, remembering that behind that blank nameless place holder in the story every character is somebody adds a touch of real life to your work.  Behind the blank nameless face every person you see today is somebody too.

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Tomorrow is the first day of March; the month legend has it Mother Nature totally plays us with a game of lions vs. lambs.  If it we enter into March with weather that is calm and quiet like the lamb we can predict the month will end with the weather roaring like a lion, wreaking Nature’s vengeance on us all.

Of course most of us don’t actually believe any of this stuff and year after year Mother Nature has let us down and forgot her game by the end o f the month.

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I do have my own prediction for March and it has little to do with the weather.

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March is three months after NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where writers around the globe pledge to put aside the daily vanities of life and throw themselves heart and soul into trying to write a 50,000 word novel from start to finish in only the thirty days of November.

If you are like me that is three months during which you have completely put that NaNo novel out of your mind to focus on other things.  For myself December is spent stressing over Christmas, worrying over the lack of money to afford what is required of you, and getting little else done.  The other two months I focused on writing and editing other projects, giving no thought at all to The McAllister Farm.

Three months sounds like a good break to me.

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March also happens to be a free month, falling between Christmas/Hanukkah/whatever you celebrate around that time and the busy spring and summer time.

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I predict March is as good a time as any to go back and tackle that first revision of the NaNo novel.  A no holds barred attack in the same spirit of NaNoWriMo.

After three months of pointedly not looking at it or even thinking about it, it’s time to give that NaNo novel its first dose of merciless and aggressive editing.

Don’t stop to think or analyze.  First impressions are everything.

This is not a carefully thought out edit meant to fix grammar and spelling or smooth minor flaws.

MAIM (March Amend & Improve Mayhem) that NaNo novel.  Attack it without care with a big fat red marking pen (or the electronic equivalent).  Cut and slash anything that on first impression is off, weird, doesn’t work, or just seems like extra baggage.

Scribble notes all over it, whatever strikes you as you tackle the beast.  It doesn’t matter if the notes make much sense, impressions can lead to something later.

Anything that comes to mind: observations, ideas, questions, random thoughts, character traits, back story, behind the scenes story, what should have been, things you should link, etc. Anything goes.

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EDIT: edit, deconstruct, improve, and transform that novel like you don’t care how perfect the final outcome is.  This is only a first edit anyway.

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Take one month, March, to completely go over the WIP start to finish and tackle the obvious.  Amend, research, and outright challenge yourself.  “What the hell was I thinking when I wrote THAT?!”

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Starting tomorrow you have thirty-one days to beat that NaNo novel into submission, the iron master pounding a strip of iron into a shape that resembles the finished sword it will become.

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It’s madness, but it’s my madness.

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So tomorrow grab that NaNo WIP, put on your Mad Hatter hat, and pour the tea (wine in my case) and let’s have a writers’ editing party.

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And maybe just for fun, the next time you write/edit using the services of your computer accessed dictionary and thesaurus, try running it in a foreign language.  Oh, the madness just never ends.

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