First lines/last chances

How important is the first line of a novel, especially an unsold novel that’s going out to agents in a few weeks?

Here are the first lines of some of the books I’ve read this year:

Esther Crummey foresaw the accident as it unfolded.” The Fugitive Wife by Peter C. Brown

“FOR more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.” Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman

“Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things,” The Ice Queen, Alice Hoffman.

“THE WEEK BEFORE I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party.” Looking for Alaska, John Greene

“I write this sitting in the sink.” I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

“Mom, you’ve been fighting again.” Blood and Chocolate, Annette Curtis Klause

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Gee, wonder who?

When I started revising my WIP this past weekend, I was shocked by how bad my first paragraph sucked. My limping first line is, “Robert Reilly tried to empty his mind.” I say this with my face literally burning with embarrassment. Pu-leeze. It’s in the same dank category as, “Susie swam up out of a deep sleep.” Talk about wanting to make your reader put the book down to catch some zzzs.

And I’ve got so much to work with. Robert’s a Nashville session player, and is doing a sound check on his dobro. A dobro is a variety of resonating, “steel” or “slide” guitar used by bluegrass and blues guitarists. A quick morning of research and I found the following cool facts. Slides made of wine bottles make the sound “weepier” and richer. Metal slides give a “sharper” tone. “Bent” or “blue” notes are made by pulling the slide up 1/4 or 1/2 above or below the fret and then you “bend and vibrate” the string with the slide to get the vibrato “that makes slide guitar so haunting.” The old black blues men used knives for slides and Blind Willie Johnson is said to have used a straight razor. And there’s debate about whether you can play steel guitar with “naked fingers.” Traditional bluegrass uses a squareneck steel guitar played with three picks on the right hand (thumb, index, middle) and the slide in the right, on the pinkie, ring or middle finger. Some players tape the fingers that hold the picks. Blues musicians more often use a bottleneck version, which can be played in a traditional position. Squareneck dobros are played either in the lap or hanging horizontally from the neck. Steel resonating guitars, like dobros, were invented for volume—to be “the loudest, shiniest, funkiest.” There’s a lot there to work with. All the way through the novel as Robert moves from being controlled, cautious and wary to being more courageous, exuberant and risk tolerant.

So, first lines anyone?

Here’s my rewrite:

“You ought a ditch that metal slide, bro. Get you a wine bottle, break it. Use that glass. Makes the sound all weepier,” Homer said, picking a complicated riff on his banjo.
Robert just grunted, flexing his neck from side to side, trying to get it to pop. Anything to relieve the tension. He hadn’t played with Miss “Hell in Boots” Lacey Morris for four months. Behind the glass in the engineer’s booth, Luke was taking an inordinate amount of time to do the sound check. Lacey looked ready to explode at the delay.

One thought on “First lines/last chances

  1. I don’t think the first line is as important as the first paragraph. Nobody stops after just one line unless it’s really really bad. I think your rewrite starts to border on explanation here and there, and my opinion would be to cut anything that even begins to feel like that. For the first line, you don’t want answers, you want questions. Not “Papa walked out, axe in hand, to take care of the runt,” but “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Of course, it doesn’t literally need to be a question. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” works just as well. Not “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley, the big house where I used to live with my husband, but which we’ve been absent from for months on account of that big fire. Bitch Danvers.”


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