First Lines Are Important

first lines

Writing is a complicated business, beset on all sides by pending disaster.  Those who choose to tell stories to strangers must begin at the beginning — and that’s where the trouble starts.  Tons of good tales die on the first line because they never get one.  Writing the first line of any story is hard.  Authors have a tiny window to convince potential readers that the approaching landscape is worth their time and trouble.  Unfortunately, most authors get it wrong.  For example, one of the most famous first lines in literature, “Call me Ishmael” is actually a total disaster.  It does nothing to pull the reader into the story.  In fact, it’s a little misleading.  The only important thing Ishmael does in Moby Dick is – uh – survive.  Melville would have done a better job with, “Call him Ahab!”  But seriously, a first line should leave the reader with a nagging feeling of what-the-hell-is-going-on-here? — and a strong temptation to find out.  Here are a few first lines that do exactly that.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

George Orwell – 1984

My mother died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday; I can’t be sure.

Albert Camus – The Stranger

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.

Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.

Stephen King – The Gunslinger

All children, except one, grow up.

J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan

It was a pleasure to burn.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

Marley was dead, to begin with.

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

All this happened, more or less.

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

William Goldman – The Princess Bride

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

Ian Fleming – Casino Royale

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Iain Banks – The Crow Road

“Where’s Papa going with the ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

E.B. White – Charlotte’s Web

Elmer Gantry was drunk.

Sinclair Lewis – Elmer Gantry

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

I’m pretty much fucked.

Andy Weir – The Martian

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

And, of course, the best first line ever written:

Once upon a time. . .


*Illustration from The Far Side

Bad Advice To Writers


Everyone knows how to write.  We learn it in school.  However, to be a writer takes a singular commitment that nobody can teach you.  Unfortunately, there are tons of people out there who think they can — and they’re spreading a lot of misinformation around.  These literary hacks aren’t lies, as such; they’re just bad advice.  Here are a few of the most notorious ones.

Write for yourself.  This is just a crock!  No writer writes for themselves.  If they did, they wouldn’t WRITE IT DOWN!  The minute you commit words to paper, you are trying to communicate – full stop.

Take risks.  Here’s a newsflash.  You’re sitting in front of a computer, not dashing into a burning building.  The only risk you’re taking is that people won’t read your stuff, and once you get through that emotional firewall, the rest is easy.  Pouring your soul onto the page is what you’re supposed to do.  It isn’t a risk; it’s a necessity.

Write about what you know.  This is stupid advice.  Folks, it’s called fiction, and fiction, by definition, is a pack of lies.  Writers are liars.  That’s their job.  Billy Shakespeare didn’t know anything about Danish princes, but he wrote Hamlet … because, guess what? … he made it up.  Writers create their own universe; good writers make it believable.  If you’re going to limit yourself to your own experience, stick to those rambling End-Of-December emails that chronicle your family’s yearly adventures.

Paint a picture.  This is one of those sounds-profound bits of advice that doesn’t mean a thing.  Quite frankly, if you want to paint a picture, ya might wanna get a brush and some paint.  Apparently, that’s worth 1,000 words.  Here’s the deal. Your audience has seen a tree.  They all know what it looks like.  Describing it in great detail is not going to enhance their experience.  What you want to do is write the mood.  For example:

The tree was dancing green in the brilliant afternoon sun.
The tree was moldy green against the grey evening sky.

This is the same tree, but with six words you’ve changed the time of day, the season, probably the temperature and, most importantly, the mood.  The reader paints the tree themselves.  That’s the beauty of words on a page: the details (the real details) of any tale are already in the reader’s mind.  The writer’s mission is to jumpstart that imagination so each reader can see their own tree.

And finally:

Join a writer’s group.  This is actually good advice, but remember the more time you spend talking about writing, the less time you have to actually write.  And the only way to become a writer is to write.  Everything else is just playing at it.

“Only” – An Unsung Hero!

unsung hero

“Only” is the hardest-working little word in the English language.  It does stuff that other words just dream about.  It modifies nouns, it modifies verbs, it connects phrases and, depending on where you place it, it can change the entire meaning of any sentence.  “Only” has so much talent; I’m sure all the other words are jealous.  But does anybody sing the praises of “only?”  Do you ever hear, “Good job, ‘only?’ or “Thanks, ‘only!’ You really spiced up my sentence?”  Nope!  Never happens!  The truth is, nobody thinks about “only.”  It just hangs out in the dictionary with all the other words (who don’t do half as much work, BTW) waiting for some writer who’s searching for subtletyThat’s when “only” jumps into the literary fray, without hesitation or fanfare, and gets the job done.  And what a job!  Here are just a few examples of what “only” can do.

It can kick-start an argument

“You phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
A legitimate statement, invitation or dismissal.
“You only phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
Suddenly, somebody’s a jerk and the war’s on.

It can convey emotion.

“He lost his friend when his dog ran away.”
Aww, that’s too bad.
“He lost his only friend when his dog ran away.”
OMG!  That’s s-o-o-o-o sad!

It can turn an ordinary evening into something special.

“She was wearing an apron when he came home.”
“She was only wearing an apron when he came home.”

Pair “only” with “if” and you get a ton of regret.

“If I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”
“If only I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”

Lawyers love “only” because it can mitigate the circumstances.

“She robbed the bank.”
“She only robbed the bank.”

But it can also assign blame.

“When the fire started, he tried to save himself.”
What a quick-thinking individual!
“When the fire started, he only tried to save himself.”
Selfish bastard!

Or it can turn a good deed into a reprimand

“She cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Very responsible.
“She only cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Lazy snot!

Or it can change the meaning entirely.  And this is where “only” really flexes its muscles.  Take a look at this single simple sentence.

“She told him that she loved him.”

Now, sit back and see how “only” changes the meaning — seven different times.

Only she told him that she loved him.
She only told him that she loved him.
She told only him that she loved him.
She told him only that she loved him.
She told him that only she loved him.
She told him that she only loved him.
She told him that she loved only him.

I think it’s time we all take a moment out of our busy lives, pour a glass and drink a toast to “only,” the unsung hero of syntax and semantics.

“Here’s to you, ‘only!’  Keep up the good work!”