In this series, I will be talking my process for writing novels. I’m a “pantser” so often I don’t think about the steps I take in an organized way, and it does vary from novel to novel. But there are definite steps I take in the novel-writing process that are similar in each stage. If you’d like, check out Part 1: Inspiration.
Before I can jump into the actual writing of a story, I need a first line.
There are a lot of things a first line has to do. It has to introduce the main character (or a point of view), establish the setting and time period and tone of the novel, and also I like for a first line to give me a sense of something about to change for the main character. Oh yeah, and you want the first line to be strong enough to hook a reader into the story.
Now, it’s really hard to get the first line to do all of those things at once. Here are a few of my first lines that I really love:
- The Last Time We Met – “I found the photograph at an antique store.”
- The Victim’s Ball – “In the dying sunlight, the guillotine gleamed with a rusted beauty.”
- Hitchhikers – “Rain is drumming on a tin roof overhead when I open my eyes.”
Other times, it doesn’t come so easy:
- Mitzi & Oz – “The first day at school as the New Kid is never easy, but I have it down to a science.” (this first line changed in the second draft to “With a name like Miriam Howard, you’d think I was an 80-year-old woman.”)
- The Art Kids – “Even over the summer and in those first sticky hot weeks of September, the new girl Liz wore big flannel shirts, heavy hooded sweatshirts where she hid her pale blond hair and her sad wrists.” (this first line changed in subsequent drafts to one of my favorite first lines, “The new girl has scars on her arms, like mine.”)
- Waiting Room – “”I fucking said I was gonna go. Get off my back!”” (after an editor told me I shouldn’t start a novel with dialogue, I changed this to “With a slam, Andrew Jackson Jennings stormed out of his house.”)
How do I come up with a first line?
Normally I just think about the story a lot. Lie in bed and think about it as I’m about to fall asleep, or when I wake up in the middle of the night. The first line usually comes to me at night, when I don’t have a readily available way to write it down (or, I’m too sleepy and don’t feel like getting up to get a pen and paper).
I’m really still in the pre-writing phase of my process, where I’m on the border between an inspiration and a fully formed idea. The first line provides that bridge to cross over to a point where I can think about this story as a more concrete entity.
Sometimes, for Nanowrimo, I might write down the first sentence before November first. Firstly because I’m a repeat Nano cheater, but also because I don’t want to lose that first line.
The first line is the entry into the story, and to me it’s a hugely important part of the process. However, if you can’t come up with a great first line, remember you can go back and change it later! Sometimes you need to start the story to really understand what that first line needs to do for it.
Next week, I’ll continue talking about my writing process with Part 3: Plot Points and Structure. Until then, happy writing!