Friday, June 22, 2012

First Impressions

A few years ago, I did take a cruise out of Miami with the idea that I would write a book set on board a ship. I had done some research, and I was able to speak to a member of the crew who explained what happens to a body that goes in the water in the wrong place. But by the time I arrived back on shore, my enthusiasm for the book was gone. Rick's post and Barbara's about story ideas has gotten me thinking about why the book fizzled even before I sat down to try to write it. In retrospect, I think the problem was that the novel that I wanted to write was not a book I could set on a modern cruise ship. I wanted to write an old-fashion romantic suspense novel, heavy on mystery, atmospheric, but without post-9/11 security and surveillance cameras. It didn't occur to me at the time that I should simply write a book set in the past. Much more research required, but also much more what I had in mind. Something to think about. Thank you, Rick and Barbara.

Now, if only I had the solution to my current problem with the book I'm supposed to be working on – the dreaded first line. I have the plot, the suspects, the motive, and the killer. I have enough of the characters' bios to begin to flesh them out on the page. I even have the title. But I don't have the first line.

So I go to my bookshelves and open a few books at random. The comforting part about this creative procrastination is that I always discover a few books with lackluster first lines. Finding several of these helps my confidence.

But I hope I'll also be inspired by terrific first lines. Each of the first lines below makes me want to keep reading. I want to know the answer to a question or hear more of a distinctive voice.

“When Edward Carney said good-bye to his wife, Percey, he never thought it would be the last time he’d see her.”
Jeffrey Deaver, The Coffin Dancer

“Bennie Rosato shuddered when she caught sight of the place.”
Lisa Scottoline, Mistaken Identity

“The letter from Tally came on the day Bert Checkov died.”
Dick Francis, Forfeit

“Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies.”
Christa Faust, Money Shot

“It was the most elegant office I’d ever seen, but the flowers on the desk made me think about death.”
Valerie Wilson Wesley, Easier to Kill

“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar.”
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

“Word traveled fast in a river town with thirteen saloons.”
Bland Simpson, The Mystery of Nell Cropsey 

“If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings 

 “On Wednesday, Helen met a woman who could not frown.”
Elaine Viets, Shop till You Drop

Reading other writer’s first lines always sends me back to my own. This time I wrote them down to see if I could spot a pattern that I fell into over the course of the five books in my Lizzie Stuart series. Here they are in order:

“Rituals for the Dead and Dying. I scrawled those words across the yellow page of a legal pad one robins-chirping, tulips-blooming afternoon in May.”
Death’s Favorite Child [two lines if one counts the period]

“If dead grandmothers were supposed to be sweet comforting presences, Hester Rose, my grandmother had not been paying attention when that particular celestial lesson was taught.”
A Dead Man’s Honor [a bit long-winded, but makes the point]

“We’ve all seen or met him by now.”
Old Murders [from the letter to the editor that opens the book]

“When the dog began to howl, did Becca want to howl too?”
You Should Have Died on Monday [my favorite of my first lines]

“John’s woman?” Bobby pulled his glance away from the night ocean, shimmering, iridescent. “Her name’s Lizzzie, right?”
Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave [first chapter in third person]

Okay, no pattern I can discern. That’s probably good, but not particularly helpful.

Neither is what I did in the first book in the new series, where I started with the date and the weather. A risky beginning, but my editor thinks it works. After all, it’s 2019 and really hot, and the book begins with the morning news because something has happened. That was the only way I could make it work. Another writer might have begun differently and done it better. But I kept coming back to that newscast.

Not what I’m going to do in the second book in the series. In this one, my victim is dead in a park in the middle of a blizzard and his body is about to be found. But I don’t have that first line. An image but no words… Maybe if I go back to the title. The second character in the scene…Okay, I’ve got to go try to figure this out.


Charlotte Hinger said...

The first line is murder! Always hard for me. I can't understand why writing gets harder instead of easier.

aaron said...

Hi Frankie...I want to thank you and all of your colleagues here at "typem" for your consistently interesting posts! Well done, everybody! Per the first line problem, I use placeholders in any situation where I'm not entirely certain about the content, phrasing or, really, any aspect of the piece I'm working on at that time. I should point out that I haven't yet published any fiction, though I have certainly been to a good number of courses, in my critical and theoretical writings, I use a whole lot of placeholders. I find that being aware that a sentence ( or word, or paragraph) isn't perfect helps a little, and I can still move forward. I am unashamed to admit that I've written entire pieces with placeholders...and then simply returned and shaped/edited the work. I'm never fully satisfied, but I find that it does help!! I've also jogged your name down so that I can track down your work...and find some great opening lines!! Thanks again!

Aline Templeton said...

After the recent blog thread on cruises I'm getting a bit anxious - we're booked on one in August. I shall view my fellow0passengers with deep suspicion!


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