The hardest part of writing is the first line—it’s just summoning up the gumption to start.
Some days I sit for minutes that drag on and on, finger poised over the keyboard, unmoving. When nothing comes to me, I distract myself with e-mail or Instagram, talk to the dogs, or scroll through Facebook, anything to delay those first words.
According to popular writing advice, those first sentences are critical. Publishing blogs quote agents who advise writers to concoct queries that will grab the reader’s attention in the very first words. You have to stand out from everyone else, catch hearts fast—in the first fifty words at the very least. There’s no building up backstory or setting any kind of scene. Start in the middle of the action!
Blogs and articles and even entire books are devoted to first lines of literature. The American Book Review lists the 100 best first lines. Guess what is number one?
“Call me Ishmael.”
Why? The squishy name? The insistence?
Or how about number 2:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That one I might have to agree with —the sentence tells the whole story, right there. She was a genius.
I do have to wonder, though, if those ‘best first lines’ are the best first lines because of what came after them or if they would still stand up all alone.
There’s a lot of pressure on the first words you put down. If the agents and editors and bloggers are right, though, and first words make or break a story, it makes me worry for the general readership of this planet that we are so callous and skeptical and distracted that we can’t invest even a few hundred words before casting judgment.
When I studied music once upon a time in a faraway land in another lifetime, I hated to make the first sound. Singing in the choir was fine, even a duet was okay as long as we started together or I was the voice who entered second. When I did have to make the first sound solo for a recital or another performance, my nerves were an absolute mess and I was dependent on the conductor’s nod for courage. Once those first sounds were made, though, I was happy to sing all day.
First notes, like first words, are always a risk. They require courage and confidence. Something I definitely didn’t have at age twenty, and only intermittently experience now.
It’s easy to talk about the novel you are writing, the book you are researching, the short story you plan to publish, or the article you’re ready to pitch. Actually, doing it? That’s an entirely different casserole.
Here’s my secret to writing a book or a blog post, or for writing anything: Write crap.
Let yourself spit out something arcane and stupid and unintelligible. In fact, plan for it to be awful, a complete embarrassment you wouldn’t let your gerbil read, but….then keep going. And going. Keep spinning out your story. Once the pressure to start is off and you can let your heart and your thoughts and your imagination loose, you’d be surprised how beautifully you will write.
Think of it as moving all the junk on your workbench out of the way, so that you can really focus on what you are doing. Or clearing your throat before giving a speech. Or emptying the dishwasher before starting to cook. There are a million metaphors. Pick yours.
That’s my advice today, and I know I’m not the first to give it—write crap.
Give yourself permission to put excrement on the page. Later on, you can go back and clean it up. Figure out where you really started and what was simply putrid preamble.
How about you? Are beginnings hard? How do you get past them?
Hey, thanks for reading. I know you’ve got lots of options, so thanks for sharing a few of your minutes with me.
If you’re curious about what I’m up to, check out my website, CaraWrites.com.
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My latest book was released from Pegasus books this month! Yes, I’m one of those lucky authors who had a book drop during COVID! 100 Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues is available anywhere books are sold, but if you’d like some help finding it (or want to read some lovely reviews), click here.