Sunday, January 11, 2009

A First Step Taken

I know many writers who can't start a book until they have the perfect name for their MC. Frankly, I'm not one of them. I could easily write a book about Placeholder A interacting with Placeholder B, and terrified of Dude C. The name means virtually nothing.

My problem is something else. I literally can't write a word until I know the first sentence. I collect first sentences the way my kid hoards Halloween candy and dollar bills. I love them. I keep several close to me ... 

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

A screaming comes across the sky.

And of course,

Call me Ishmael.

I've often thought this is because I was trained as a newspaper writer. In newspapers, the lead is essential. The lead is the story. You have a good lead, everything else falls into place. Or maybe it's like shooting a rifle at the moon. If you make a tiny mistake in the beginning, if your aim is off just 1/1,000 of a degree, you'll end up missing your target by 10,000 miles. Whatever the reason, if I don't start this journey of a thousand steps with exactly the right one, then for me, there's no reason to even roll out of bed.

Last night, I was working away when, to my great surprise, the first sentence of the book I'm fooling with hit me. It's just a handful of words, a trickle of sand in the Sahara, but at least for now, this is all I need to start:

Jalen hated the way his dad smelled. 

9 comments:

Mark Terry said...

That's a great sentence.

spyscribbler said...

Love that first sentence, Jon!

I've never been impressed with "Call me Ishmael." From a technical point of view, I just love the beginning of Lolita. Awesome writing. Except it makes me want to vomit.

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

I know exactly what you mean about Lolita! Why did Nabakov have to write such a beautiful book about such a monster? But I've always suspected that was part of his point ... to render the indefensible as gorgeous. I've always imagined him as a cocky writer -- I don't know if it's true or not -- but the kind of guy who would say, "I'm so good, I can make even this beautiful." And, of course, Nabakov himself clearly despises HH and ends up destroying him, so at least just desserts are served. Still, a deeply controversial book.

Amy Nathan said...

I'm the same way. I've even received kudos for some first lines where that's all there was! To me it's like turning the key in the lock, the rest is right behind it. I have a few first lines, and first paragraphs that followed ready for me to pounce on when I'm finished with this manuscript. First line epiphanies also happen to me with chapters - essays - etc. It sometimes happens with last lines too.

But when a first line comes to me I know I have to keep it, because there is always more.

Anonymous said...

One of the things I loved as a reporter was the time pressure to produce a good first paragraph. You couldn't agonize over the first line. You wrote something - a placeholder - and finished the story.

Then you read over your hastily crafted article and discover your first line, leading to more frantic work. It's one of the few things I miss as a reporter ...

Jude Hardin said...

I like it, Jon!

Here's one I've been toying with for the next Nicholas Colt novel:

You know it's going to be an interesting morning when the first client who walks into your brand new downtown office is a 350-pound man named Precious.

LurkerMonkey said...

Anon,

Ha ha! I'm still a reporter, and I still do that. But I work like a dog to avoid it.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

I laughed out loud ...

Zoe Winters said...

LMAO @ Placeholder A and Dude C. hahahahahahaha