I have this compulsive need to get things right and to get them right the first time. I often feel that it hinders my ability to move forward because if I can’t do it the way it needs to be done right off the bat, I’ll stop or procrastinate until I’m forced to give up.
As a writer, I consider it one of my worst qualities.
It’s better to write something than nothing and then go back and revise, but if I don’t start where I truly want to start, I’ll flounder and get lost.
I know, I know, writing is a process of discovery, but when it comes to beginnings, I can’t just rely on “discovering.” I often know where I want to start and the general direction I want my writing to take, and once I get down a solid enough beginning, then I WELCOME the whole process of discovery because at that point, it’s fun and exciting! Nothing is better than saying “Wow…I had no idea that I would take this character in X direction,” or “I totally didn’t plan for this plot-point or character” and seeing that it serves the story better than anything I could have set out to plan. But when I have a shitty beginning, I get completely stuck.
That’s happening right now.
I have this character who won’t leave me alone. I can feel his story, and I want nothing more than to write it, but I can’t seem to get the beginning right. Within the last two weeks, I’ve written about 45 pages (roughly six chapters), and re-reading it over, it just feels like six separate chapters that aren’t bound together by anything concrete.
And that’s because of where I began.
After reading Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight, well, the first thing I realized was “FUCK. The premise and how it begins is WAY too similar to this new project I’m working on” and frankly, he did it better than I ever could. The second thing I realized was that, because Konigsberg did it so well, not only do I have to change how I began my new novel, but I actually WANT to do so. Once I finished reading Openly Straight, I realized that the main arch of my new idea could never measure up to OS and part of the reason for that is because before I started writing it, I decided to change it from what I originally wanted it to be. (Confusing, right? Welcome to my world.) Now I have a clear vision of what I need to do.
But where to start?
One of my favorite things to do is to pick up all of my favorite books and take a look at their first lines. Somehow, reading the first sentence(s) of my favorite books ignites a fire in me. I think most of the time it’s to challenge myself to write something better, or something that’s, at the very least, on par. (In my own mind, anyway.) It allows me to see every single possibility so that I can see clearly how to begin my own work.
I thought it’d be fun to take a look at and post some of my favorite book’s first lines in hopes that, by typing them out and sharing them with my readers, it will spark something within me so that I can finally (re)write the beginning of this new project.
Let’s start with Bill Konigsberg‘s Openly Straight, since I’ve been praising the hell out of it:
If it were up to my dad, my entire life would be on video.
Anything I do, he grabs his phone “Opal,” he’ll yell to my mother. “Rafe is eating corn flakes. We gotta get this on film.”
There’s just something about that line that draws me in immediately and tells me everything I need to know about Rafe’s dad and their close-knit relationship.
Next on my (nonsensically-ordered) virtual bookshelf is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower:
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.
I’m immediately drawn in to the anonymity of the recipient and I love Charlie’s voice in these letters. It’s honest and raw and very real to me.
This next one is from another one of my all-time favorite novels, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd:
I spent a good part of my senior prom drawing DH + PS in a giant heart in the last stall of the Cedarville High boys’ bathroom. It covered the entire wall and took two red markers and almost an hour to complete. Every now and then, groups of guys would come in and piss in a line at the urinals and talk about how they were gonna get lucky with their dates, but for most part it was just me and the marker stink and the muted sounds of crappy hip-hop coming through the walls.
I’ve always been envious of this first paragraph; it tells the reader so much about the novel’s main character, Dade.
If there is any first sentence I wish I could have written, it’s definitely from JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Brilliant. End of story.
David Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law is another book with a great hook:
My first thought is: My mother is dead.
In a book about three teenagers who lives are intertwined in the aftermath of 9/11, this first line is downright chilling.
My favorite YA problem-novelist, Laurie Halse Anderson is also great at beginning her books. Wintergirls is by far my favorite:
So she tells me, the words dribbling out with the cranberry muffin crumbs, commas dunked in her coffee.
She tells me in four sentences. No, five.
I can’t let me hear this, but it’s too late. The facts sneak in and stab me. When she gets to the worst part
…body found in a motel room, alone…
…my walls go up and my doors lock. I nod like I’m listening, like we’re communicating, and she never knows the difference.
It’s not nice when girls die.
Are you hooked yet?
One of the most unique YA novel’s I’ve ever read is Perry Moore’s Hero, which follows Thom Creed, a teen superhero who just-so-happens to be gay:
I never thought I’d have a story worth telling, at least not one about me.
It’s simple, a bit cliched, but it works. Not exactly what I’m looking for, but once this story gets going, it’s impossible to put down!
The first line from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is one that I actually tried to emulate once. It
didn’t work out totally sucked:
I was born with water on the brain.
I’ve always loved that line!
I often assign Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in the classes I teach, and we always end up discussing this opening paragraph and the power it holds in setting the story and tone for the novel’s main themes:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
The first line of Going Bovine by Libba Bray always has me LOLing:
The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.
I like the idea of starting with a past reflection. Especially if it’s a humorous anecdote and ends up serving the story well.
And last but not least, I can’t discuss my favorite YA novels without mentioning Harry Potter. And what better than the book that started it all, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, fo number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Are you inspired yet?
Time to sit down at the computer and do what I do best…WRITE.