Your First Sentence Could Destroy Your Novel

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You’ve finished your book.

You’re sitting in a stuffed paisley armchair feeling mighty proud of yourself. Sipping scotch. Puffing on your meerschaum. Got all your elbow patches glued on. Maybe you’re even a little slower to refill your cat’s water bowl– because hey, you’re a novelist now.

But wait.

Something’s wrong. And not just the 10 page flashback that takes place in a Russian bakery or your dubious climax that features the protagonist trotting on all fours in a dog suit.

Hmm. Remembering some of my unpleasant reviews now.
1) “… has all the ingredients for a tasty stew but never turns the oven on.”
2) “… manages to be both predictable and unbelievable.”

Dear dear critics.

Anyway.

Most worrisome is the novel’s opener. Your first sentence fails to yank the reader by his slippery lapels and force his cute pug nose down into your second and third sentences.

Your first sentence probably goes something like:

“Susan’s eyes, glassy and cold, hard and round, solid stony orbs, hazel-hued marbles, glared at Thomas.”

Pretty good. Alliteration. Metaphor. No adverbs! But your first words out of the gate should be:

“Susie, take that gun out of my mouth,” said Tom but with Susie’s black derringer in his mouth it sounded more like “ooeeayatunooow.”

Ka-ching!

Maybe you feel yourself above the crass commercialism of extra exciting starter sentences. “Oh well,” you shrug. “First impressions aren’t fatal.”

Hah!

I spent a fancy-schmancy over-priced day at a Writer’s Conference with a famous editor who wore an expensive green neck scarf and informed everyone that he only read first sentences. Yes– despite “first five pages” crap to the contrary– publishers, assistants, interns and your mom are only reading your initial seven words or so.

Which means 1) the rest of your novel can be garbage but that first line better sing and 2) there is an ungodly amount of pressure on that trembly small-town beginning of yours. Not only does it need to lure the unwilling reader but it must also FORESHADOW YOUR ENDING.

Jesus, it’s too much, isn’t it?

FIRST LINE: Can’t I just… I mean… ha!.. the uh… description or whatever… set the… like… for instance… um… (clears throat).. the elm trees… uh… (bursts into sobs)
______________________

I’ve rewritten my novel’s opening hundreds of times.

Let me dig up the latest version of “DWARFED, a novel.”

OK.  Discarded first phrases: “sweating inky puddles,” “sweating dark puddles,” “sweating black puddles,” “sweating dark flower-petal stains,” “sweating flower-petal-shaped stains,” “sweating black flowers,” “sweating strange stains,” “sweating odd-shaped stains,” “sweating and gesticulating with their cigarettes,” etc.

Ah, here it is.

“The dwarfs milled around the alley, smoking, holding soda cans aloft, and sweating spectacularly.”

Does this sentence encourage you to read further?

Does it seem like I spent months on it?

“DWARFED, a novel” includes a huge backstory detour into a Russian bakery and, in its most suspenseful scene, my narrator skulks unnoticed in an ill-fitting dog disguise.  My novel has G-rated sex scenes, half-naked mermaids, circus flashbacks, and dream sequences galore.  In the end, my narrator is ripped apart by wild animals (spoiler alert).

My book has its flaws, no doubt, but I have focused for several months on just rewriting my first sentence.

I think I made it worse.

Line number one fought the good fight but, inevitably, ran whimpering  into a dresser drawer.

Time to refill the cat’s water bowl.

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TOP SEVEN NOVEL-WRITING BOOKS

1) 179 Ways To Save A Novel by Peter Selgin. (My favorite– fantastic examples of how-not-tos from his students.  Plus so honest he tells you that novel-writing books don’t really help.)

2) Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham.  (Indispensable book on cause and effect.)

3) The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. (Yeah, it’s good.  Nobody’s reading past your first sentence, believe me, but this can’t hurt.)

4) Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  (More options for viewpoints than other books.)

5) Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  (Humorous and helpful tips plus great cartoons by George Booth.)

6) The Book on Writing by Paula LaRocque.  (Practical advice on style and grammar.)

7) Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. (Yes, I know, comics.  Just read it anyway.  You snob.)

Let me know about your experiences writing first sentences.

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