Overcoming The Fear Of Perfect First Lines

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Day Six – First Lines Must Transfix!

I’ve paraphrased some very good advice:

When you are staring at a blank page or screen and can’t seem to get started write 10 or 20 ‘first sentences’. Don’t think or write beyond these story openers.

Be as playful or as nonsensical or abstract as you wish. It can be a lot of fun and liberating when you only have to think of the opening line and not the whole story!

Put these lines aside, have a coffee or a short walk or do some gardening … just take a break.

Later, look at the sentences.

Seen in isolation, the simplest of sentences can set off a cascade of questions you can spend an entire story or chapter answering. Eg. ‘He thought of cutting off the other leg.”

  • What leg? Whose leg? Why?
  • Is it a piece of furniture, an animal, a person??
  • How is he going to do it?
  • What happened to the first leg and did he or someone else cut it off?
  • Why is he still thinking about it and not doing it – what is stopping him?
  • Who is this person? Where is he?
  • What historical period is this?

Judy Budhitz: You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story© 2009

Read and Read Some More

Have a look at the following opening sentences from The Penguin Century of Australian Stories edited by Carmel Bird – what questions do they raise and where could the story go?

You can’t plagiarise – so don’t start your story with the exact words but the lines may trigger a similar idea.

‘We sat in our navy-blue serge tunics with white blouses.

A Snake Down Under, Glenda Adams

If you don’t wait under the house,’ said Rhoda to me, ‘she won’t come at all.’

Under The House, Jessica Anderson.

Down by the bar at the end of the pool, Ella Fitzgerald was telling them to take love easy easy easy and the women with skin like bark kept taking the conversation easy with two gate-crashers from a lugger.

Petals from Blown Roses, Thea Astley

I select from these letters, pressing my fingers down.

‘ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ’, Murray Bail

Louise was born on a Monday; she was married on a Monday, and her cat was eaten by an owl on a Monday.

The Powerful Owl, Candida Baker

I think you will agree, these are all intriguing opening sentence prompting questions.

IMAGERY IS IMPORTANT TO ENGAGE READERS

A successful image jolts the reader’s nervous system when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.”

Which one makes you want to know what happens next? The rewrite is an example of showing and the first of telling.

writing class bentleigh

Get used to writing the first thing that comes into your head – don’t censor or edit – you’ll be surprised what it may lead to. Many great writers say they do not write per se – but are merely vessels through which writing flows.

The subconscious produces the writing, you just have to keep up. Train yourself to write specific pieces over particular timeframes. Eg. One short story or poem a week.

Set tangible goals but be flexible – life is for living not worrying about self-imposed challenges.

Now it is your turn…

Try to write fast and not plan (no mind mapping today) – just let your mind focus on creating an image the words trigger.

Once you get a story down – then you can shape it for your audience – but you have to write it first!!

An original idea is not necessarily one that hasn’t occurred to others (a concept, plot, twist in story), it can be your approach to the story idea that’s original.

Stephen King wrote about teenage vampires years ago but Stephanie Meyer’s depiction made her Twilight series best sellers.

Your originality will be the slant you choose, your style of writing and your interpretation of a good but perhaps well-worn idea.

GRAB A PEN AND WRITE

Rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains (tells).

By concentrating on creating an effective image your writing will get a boost. (Remember all of this advice and triggers can be used for poetry if that’s your preferred genre.)

  • Her hair was a mess.
  • The garden was ready for picking.
  • I hate broccoli.
  • You always change your mind.
  • The moon is full.
  • Fred’s car was a mess.
  • The food did not look good.
  • The terrier was mean.
  • The old woman’s shoes did not fit.
  • The party was fun.

10_04_anais_nin_quote

Have you created a great first line? Can you continue with one of the stories?

(If none of the above inspired, check Google images on a theme you want to write about and make the image come to life by telling the story of the picture.)

Practice makes perfect good advice when it comes to creative writing. The more you read writers good at their craft, the more you learn and absorb their expertise. The more you write, the easier it becomes to remember a lot of those techniques and apply it to your own writing.

To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.

opening into a garden

I love short stories and read a lot of them – and I love travelling (I’ve done a lot of that too!).

Here are twelve first lines to consider why they ‘hook’ you in – and by the way, this is important for all writers, even those into non-fiction! These first lines are from The best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, 2009 edited by Tony Wheeler

  1. I got off the plane in Addis Ababa and there, as in so many airports so often in the past, was my school friend, Louis, extending a shaky hand. Pico Iyer “No Food, No Rest, No…”
  2. In Borneo, there were only two destinations: upriver and down. Stanley Stewart, “Upriver”
  3. For weeks after returning from my ill-fated journey to the Indian Himalayan village of Kaza, I had difficulty explaining to people why I’d wanted to go there in the first place. Rolf Potts, “Something Approaching Enlightenment
  4. We lost the side-view mirrors somewhere outside Nakhon Ratchasima. Bill Fink, “The End Of The Road”
  5. It was a blazing tropical morning in the middle of nowhere. Simon Winchester “Ascension In The Moonlight”
  6. This story – this true story – concerns reciprocal kindnesses in a country which has come to symbolise humanity’s trials. Nicholas Crane, “Finding Shelter
  7. Through moonlit fog, I walked from the bus station towards the colonial centro of San Christóbal Chiapas. Laura Resau, “Secrets of the Maya”
  8. When I was working in China, it seemed that everyone I needed to see was not where he was supposed to be. Karl Taro Greenfield, “On The Trail
  9. Blam! The mad Tibetan slammed his head against the windscreen with such force that cracks shot across the screen from the point of impact. Tony Wheeler, “Walking the Mount Kailash Circuit”
  10. In 1974, when I was 23, it was not uncommon for a young person to gather together a few dollars, strap on a backpack and spend part of the summer hitchhiking through Europe, searching for unknown foreign adventures or merely trying to postpone the inevitable adult responsibility called ‘work’. Greg Tuleja, “A Slight Leaning Backward”
  11. Devoted as I am to the ethos of Lonely Planet, I was never a backpacker. Jan Morris, “Ignoring The Admiral
  12. The flat perched at the top of the house, little more than a lean-to riveted to Mrs Puri’s ceiling. William Dalrymple, “City of Djinns”

I wrote this story from a prompt in a writing game – you had to go fast and furious and the prompts were bizarre.

Fijian Fantasy, a short story by Mairi Neil

The first line had to be ‘my brother did this weird thing with turtles’,  I had to mention Duluth (yes, this is a place)and the phrase, ‘a smell of leftovers’!

I told you in an earlier post writing games are fun!

Titles as Inspiration

A decade ago, I read about Martha Grimes who writes a series of mystery novels in which the titles are taken from the names of British pubs.

What stories could you write (they don’t have to be mysteries) featuring typical fast food and other restaurants around Melbourne’s suburbs?

 Here are a few ideas to get you started – apologies but you should know by now I love alliteration:

  • Star Struck at Starbucks
  • Mayhem at McDonald’s
  • Wendy’s Wishes
  • Danger at Domino’s
  • Blah Blah’s Battleground
  • Gloria Jean’s Gluttony
  • Pancake Parlour Pirate
  • Taco Bill’s Tyranny
  • Curry House Caper

If you are into historical fiction or any genre imaginable here are a few names of British Pubs I pulled from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names – an intoxicating history of a famous British institution, Wordsworth edition, London 1994,

book cover - pub names

It is amazing what books you find on your shelves! I’ll list where the pubs are so you know I’m not making them up – but so what if I was – I am a creative writer:)

A Bit on the Side (Chippenham, Wiltshire)
Abbot’s Fireside (Eltham, Kent)
Air balloon (Abingdon and elsewhere)
Angel by the Bridge (Henley-on-Thames)
Atmospheric Railway (Starcross, near Exeter)
Babes in the Wood (Hanging Heaton, West Yorks)
Bag ‘o Nails (Annesley, Nottinghamshire)
Bald-face Stag (Burnt Oak, Edgware)
Bareknuckle Boys (Holmfirth, Huddersfield)
Bleak House (Horsell Common, Sry and elsewhere)
Cuckoo Bush (Gotham Nottinghamshire)
Crystal Palace (Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere)
Crown and Cushion (Eton and elsewhere)
Cross Rifles ( Bridgwater Somerset)
Court Jester (Hampton Gloucester)

And the alphabetical lists go on for 300 pages with a potted history of each name – although many state the obvious!

Maiden’s Head (Maidenhead and elsewhere)
Magpie and Stump (London EC4)
King’s Head (London and elsewhere)
Queen’s Arms ( Watford and elsewhere)
Try Again (Bristol)

Now Go Do Fast Writing

Close your eyes, relax and breathe deeply.
Say to yourself: With every word I write I will become calmer, more confident and more creative.
Repeat 3 times with feeling.
Imagine yourself writing quickly and fluidly
Smile – this is writing for pleasure!
Let go of your logical mind.
Let your subconscious come up with the words and ideas – trust your memory to have stored interesting events, people, thoughts…

Good Luck and Happy Writing

5 thoughts on “Overcoming The Fear Of Perfect First Lines

    1. My guess that’s because you’re a perfectionist – and what they call a planner. I’m a bit like that too but not when I’m given a first line – I sort of just keep writing whatever comes into my head – and then go back and change it:) And even when I plan out a story, I’ll often go back and change the beginning to try and make it more dynamic. All writing is an uphill battle – I envy those who have a talent and are super productive! And I include you in that category – look at the posts you produce – awesome effort!

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        1. And they need readers and reviewers have power in their pens so need to be perceptive, eloquent, discerning and talented with words. You tick all the boxes, it is a different skill set but for people to want to read your reviews you apply all the important craft rules.

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