Classic First Line Perfection

When you think of classic first lines, I bet that at least one of these three comes to mind: “Call me Ismael.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859) “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” -Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813) What makes these first lines so memorable? Within the first sentence of Melville’s Moby Dick, you already know the main character. Not only does Ishmael speak directly to the reader, the way he introduces himself leaves a touch of mystery. Melville could have written, “My name is Ishmael,” which solidifies the character’s name, however he chose to create suspicion in the reader’s mind. “Call me Ishmael.” Is Ishmael his real name? Is it a nickname? Can we trust this character? The choice of name also stands out. Had Melville chosen the name Bob, the line wouldn’t have the same punch. The first line in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities instantly creates tension. His use of rhythm and anaphora sets up the theme of duality that runs all throughout A Tale of Two Cities– hope and despair, love and hate, London and Paris, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay etc. Jane Austen is a personal favorite. The first line of Pride in Prejudice summarizes the entire plot of the story – the pursuit of beneficial marriage in 19th century England. Austen explores both sides of the equation. If a single, wealthy man needs a wife, then a single woman needs a wealthy husband. With five daughters, the Bennett’s are desperate. How can writers construct first lines like the classics? First, don’t steal the classics. I’ve read so many books that take the classic lines and twist them. How many “It’s a dark and stormy nights,” do we really need? Even the best-overused phrase becomes cliché. Instead, try to come up with something fresh. Second, don’t be afraid to get creative. Let your crazy juice flow. You can always edit later on. Lastly, make your first line... read more

Overthinking the First Line – An Author’s Dilemma

It is true an author needs to consider what will grab a reader in the first few pages, but what about the very first sentence? Do you stop reading if the first sentence isn’t interesting? Probably not, but if you’re a writer, you need to consider your prospective audience, especially if they’re twelve and younger. Here are a few first lines to ponder: “It was a dark and stormy night.” After reading this line, what do you think the story will be about? Vampires? Zombies? Pirates? Or maybe it’s a tragic love story. Basically we have no idea unless we were coherent enough to look on the front cover and see this is the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle. In 1962, when A Wrinkle in Time was published, first lines were probably not as important as they seem to be today, at least for those of us who are trying to get published. It would be rare indeed to see a book published today that starts with just a comment about the weather. But I have to admit this line sets the perfect scene for what happens next and has become a classic for children and adults. “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” This line was published in 1964 in The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. It gives us a more insightful view of the coming story. From this one sentence we know the basic information about the main character—he wants to be a hero, but has to do boring work instead. What middle school boy couldn’t relate to that? “I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how happy and excited everyone was.” This line comes from Malie Maloy’s, The Apothecary, published in 2011. First, I want to say I loved this book. Any story with magical realism set in another decade is a hit with me. But I think this first line gives us an excellent example of the author’s dilemma. In this sentence we get a hint of time and place, but not much else. The majority of the book is set when the main character is a teenager in England, so this first part of the book is pretty much backstory. It is needed backstory, but I would’ve liked... read more

Got Christmas Cash to Spend on Writing Resources?

If you are a writer and got Christmas cash or bookstore gift cards, he are a few books to look at to get your new year off to an inspired start: From Jessica: This year has been an exciting year for me. I experienced my first SCBWI conference in Oklahoma City, joined a critique group, and finally admitted to people that I am a writer. As part of WWAT, I was asked to pick one book that has really helped my craft this year I have never been really good at following directions, however, I do enjoy to share. The books I would recommend include: Word Magic for Writers by Cindy Rogers, Write your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell, Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, and Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole. I’d also recommend checking out K.M Weiland’s blog: But if I had to choose, the most helpful source was Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole. It covered everything from starting your story, to plot, characters, theme, and voice. It has been my go to book. It has a little of everything and has become my map when I have lost my writing direction. Here’s to Happy Writing in the New Year! Jessica Lyn Toman Bell, James Scott. Write Your Novel from the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between. Woodland Hills, California: Compendium Press, 2014. Collins, Brandilyn. Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002. Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012. Rogers, Cindy. Word Magic For Writers: Your source for Powerful Language that Enchants, Convinces, and Wins Readers. West Redding, CT: Writer’s Institute Publications, 2004, 2013.  From M.M. Cox I love Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke and Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. Both have made me a much more thoughtful and organized writer. One of the biggest things is learning to think of each chapter, novel, and series has having a beginning, middle, and end (introducing all the main points, complicating the matter, and climax/denoument). Here are the links:‘ From John Davidson I second the Mary Kole book mentioned by Jessica. I also love another book by James Scott Bell,Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, 2nd Edition As writers we often hear “show don’t tell” but that might leave us saying,... read more