Those All-Important First Lines

May 26, 2009
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THOSE ALL-IMPORTANT FIRST LINES

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
June 2009

"How did he decide so quickly that these stories weren’t worth his time?"
—Shapiro

Picture an editor (or more likely an editorial assistant) sitting at his or her desk (I’ll go with his,) a stack of unread manuscripts before him, yours among them. He picks up one and within minutes remands it to the slush pile, then another, another. Some he dismisses with a shake of the head, others a grumble or a roll of his eyes. How did he decide so quickly that these stories weren’t worth his time? And what was it about the one or two manuscripts that made him lean forward in his chair, his face tight with concentration?

Sven Bickerts, editor of Agni Review, gives an example of a story dismissed by reading just the first line. (See http://web.bu.edu/agni/essays/print/2006/63-birkerts.html.)

“John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.”

(I don’t see what Bickerts’ beef is with this line. I’d end up reading a few more lines at least before I put it down, but the Agni Review is so well thought of that I will defer.)

Bickerts says that the name “John Maloney” is right out of “Central Casting.”

(Now I’m panicked about all the story names that I’ve chosen in stories.)

Bickerts also dislikes “hunched.’ He says it’s a sign of secondhand “literary” work where the writer was either inexperienced or experienced and lazy. “When a reader reads these words,” Bickerts writes, “he sees and feels absolutely nothing, or has an echo of a dull memory from the hundred thousand hunched shoulders from a lifetime of reading.”

(Oh, boy, I’d better delete hunched shoulders on my manuscripts.)

". . . traction, a quality that makes the reader stick with the story  is the most important quality. . ."
—Shapiro

Bickerts thinks that traction, a quality that makes the reader stick with the story  is the most important quality and should be there right from the get-go. A story that lays out a new world for the reader right from the first line has traction. You have to write with the understanding that there is a saturation of the written word and find new modes of expression that show how problematic communication is today.

So how do we translate this idea of traction, of presenting a new world, in our first lines? He never actually nails it down, but I think we can by looking at a sampling of first lines from the venerated New Yorker, a mag I dream to be published in.

“The news of the decision to close the Preserves was undoubtedly the worst I had ever received.” (The Slows by Gail Hareven.)

Yes, a new world. Right away the reader wants to know what the Preserve is (surely not a jar of jam.) And the writer takes you by the collar and tells you that it’s important because it’s “the worst news he has ever received..

“Loomis had never believed that line about the quality of despair being that it was unaware of being despair.”  Visitation by Brad Watson.

  Ah, now there’s a name—Loomis. You think right away of someone from a rural setting or maybe someone who is Loony? (Just joking. I think the editor has gone too far. What if Alice in Wonderland had been Lataviana in Wonderland? Would it be a classic? Anyway, the strong statement of the first line definitely draws the reader in. Sure, hunched shoulders can mean despair, but this line makes the reader think what was the line about the quality of despair again and why is Loomis feeling it? Keep reading.

“Ali Hyland, one of the neighbors in Enniscorthy, phoned Paul in Dublin to say that his aunt Josie, his father's sister, had been found that morning on the floor, having fallen out of bed in the house where she lived alone; they thought that she had been lying there most of the night. The Color of Shadows by Colm Toibin.

Right away we know that the story is set in Ireland and there is enough information given to create alarm, therefore interest, in the reader without using hackneyed phrases. And the title is quite intriguing too, no?

“It took them both a long time to understand that the boy was sick, though she would point out that she had been the first to notice that he was unhappy, and had sought to remedy his discontent with sweeter treats and more delightful distractions.”  A Tiny Feast" by Chris Adrian.
This first line maps out the entire drama: the family conflict, the boy’s illness. We just have to, absolutely have to read on to find out more. 

“Often, when the grocery store is empty and all you can hear is the buzzing of flies, I think of that young man whose name we never knew and whom no one in town ever mentioned again.” Vast Hell by Guillermo Martinez.
What an opening! If the narrator is thinking of the young man often the reader will want to find out about him, too.

"The writer intrigues us with his language."
—Shapiro

 

 

When Julia was twenty-nine, her hair was already bar-coded.” Julia and Byron by Craig Raine.

The writer intrigues us with his language. What an arresting and accurate image—a girl with bar-coded hair.

“The winter after her brother killed himself, Ally got a job at a writers' center near her parents' house, helping out with admin in the office.” She's the One by Tessa Hadley.

The writer presents a dramatic situation, a suicide, told simply, almost off the cuff. Nobody hunches their shoulders or does anything melodramatic. Witty, compelling!

“She is on the phone. He can see her reflection in the bathroom mirror, the headset wrapped around her ear as if she were an air-traffic controller or a Secret Service agent. "Brother on Sunday" by A.M. Homes.

Another compelling image with wit—headset wrapped around her ear as if she were an air-traffic controller or a Secret Service agent. A first line like this tells the editor that he can rest assured that this writer can really write and he’ll at least read a few more pages.

“Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinikie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk's row in the rotes group's wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month." Wiggle Room by David Foster Wallace.

I have no idea what this sentence means, but it has great comic appeal and I’d definitely read on.

In summary, some ways to catch an editor’s attention and keep it (traction):

Create a new world for the reader to enter into. Use names for characters that give a sense of where they are from or what they are like as people or are appropriate for the time frame. I doubt a story set a century ago would have a heroine named Tiffany. Set up an interesting hook, such as “the worst news I ever had.” Find an arresting image, one that captures a character or situation or place. Use fresh language (a girl with bar-coded hair.)

"Sometimes you have to write 50 pages before you get your first line."
—Shapiro

Sometimes you have to write 50 pages before you get your first line or it may flit on your shoulder like a butterfly. But whenever you get to it, put your all into it or no one else may get to read the rest.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

 

 

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.

 

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