Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Importance of First Lines


Gregor Samsa was a cockroach when he woke up one morning.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Same idea, but a world of difference. Read them out loud. (Go ahead -- nobody's listening.) Can you feel it? Can you hear it? The first sentence is awkward on the tongue. It lacks rhythm. It sounds funny. It's not very detailed. There's less intrigue. The first sentence has the ring of an amateur.

Of course, Franz Kafka went with the second sentence -- with the uneasy dreams and the transformation -- because Franz Kafka was a professional. Franz Kafka knew the importance of a first line. He knew that the first line is what entices a reader to either devour a piece of writing or walk away from it. You have exactly one line with which to draw your reader into the world you've created (or at least become curious enough about that world to keep reading). Got it? You get a single line to create your first impression, so it has to be good.

Anyone who has taken an undergraduate fiction or creative nonfiction workshop should know this. This is a piece of advice straight out of Creative Writing 101, and it's nearly as ubiquitous as "Show, don't tell." Because this principle is such a no-brainer to me, I'm amazed by how many Stoneboat submitters seem to overlook it. I have spent the past few days reading through the prose submissions for our fall issue, and I'm stunned -- absolutely stunned -- by how many people have neglected their first lines. Some of the bad first lines contain spelling or punctuation errors. Some of them don't make sense. Some of them are boring. Some of them resemble soap opera dialogue. The bad ones all have one thing in common, though: they go straight into my rejection pile.

Repeat: if you blow it in the first line, I will read no further. With hundreds of submission pages to get through, I will not waste my time reading 5,000 words penned by someone lacking the professionalism to properly tend to that first line. I will not read eight pages written by someone who was unable to grab my attention (or, worse, by someone who grabbed it for all the wrong, clunky reasons). I want to publish prose that will take my readers' breath away, and if you don't take mine away first, are going to get the form letter.

I'm sure I could quote John Gardner or Janet Burroway (both of whom have much more amazing credentials than I do) to make this point more eloquently. Unfortunately, The Art of Fiction and Writing Fiction are sitting on a shelf in my office, and I'm at home, so you'll have to trust me on this. Or even better -- head to your local library, grab a craft book from the shelf, and get to work on your own first lines. You might have written a story that you think is worthy of The New Yorker, but if you don't have a stellar first line, nobody -- not even a small new journal like Stoneboat -- will publish it.

For what it's worth, here's a list of the 100 best first lines from novels, according to the American Book Review. It's a pretty good study guide, really.


Stoneboat said...

PS: We are accepting submissions for the fall issue through July 15. If you think your first line is up to snuff, please send your work! Guidelines are here:

Lisa said...

You tell it Signe! This is very helpful to all of us. It gives me pause. First impressions do matter.