Ah, that elusive special something. Do I have it? Can I get it? In hopes that it would instantly magnetize to my fingers over the keyboard (or at least in hopes of becoming a better writer), I participated in writeoncon—an online writers conference that spurred me on once again. You can still head there to check out what you missed. Today I’ll share some things discussed about those first few lines, including through the first page.
I loved this analogy: Sarah Davies (Greenhouse Literary Agency) on writer potential and quality:
“I often know very soon – like a few lines in – whether a new writer has that ‘something’ or not. Obviously I have to see how the story/characters will develop, but that sense of voice and the moment is often there from the start. It’s like listening to a young musician. You can hear the musicality even if they just play a simple scale of C.”
Voice. The character’s voice, not the author’s. That’s a tricky one to define and a hefty topic I’ll cop out on and save for another post. “A good first page has an engaging voice, an introduction to the character, with hints of what type of story is to come.” – Sarah LaPolla (Curtis Brown)
Honing the writing craft to the ‘musicality’ level typically starts with a first draft that sucks. Some parts are salvageable. Then comes multiple revisions. It takes practice and hard work. With perseverance we can achieve what agents, publishers, and readers are looking for. Go for it!
Let’s look at what is NOT wanted in those first few lines: Don’t start with a dream. Agents repeatedly put this as one of their pet peeves. Readers want to know the real world as it exists for the main character and dreams don’t give that. Same thing for flashbacks. Don’t start with a car crash either. They get that one a lot, too. Think fresh, unique. Oh, and don’t start off with dialogue in the first line. It assumes we understand a character and voice that we haven’t yet met.
Take a look at some Dos: Do give readers something unexpected. Like the orphan getting shipped off to live with her great aunt whom the girl hopes is mean and ugly. We would want to know why the orphan didn’t wish her future caretaker was kindly. We would want to read more to find out why. Surprises don’t need to be action-packed. Action impacts readers stronger when they know something about the people who are about to be blown up, for example. Start setting up a simple conflict where questions tug at a reader’s mind, willing him/her to read further to find the answers. Do use something specific rather than generic to the main character or the story. Do make a quick connection with the reader through something familiar but stated in a new, interesting way. Do make it the best that you can. Write that first page until it sings!