The publishing industry puts a lot of emphasis on the first lines of works being as attention-grabbing, unique, and, well, perfect as possible. The first impression of your work will always be the most important moment in the entire piece, followed very closely by the last lines and the climax scene. This pressure often makes starting one of the hardest things for a writer. It seems to be especially difficult when the work is projected to be at one of the two extremes: long or short.
The shorter the length, the less wiggle-room you have, and the sooner you need to make an impact, for the sake of the story.
The longer the length, the more wiggle-room you have, but you still need to make your impact and hook soon–early, and I mean as early as possible. I mean, first sentence early. This is less for the sake of the story and more for the sake of the reader.
Your first lines–first paragraph or two, really–create a contract between the book and the reader. Either it’s going to be a binding or non-binding contract. Either you’ve hooked them and they’re with the story until the end (of this book or the series), or you haven’t and they may shirk the story at any time, shaking it off like water on an exceptionally wet dog.
If you haven’t hooked them, what’s the point of them continuing?
It’s a lot of pressure for a writer. Even the most seasoned writers can be stymied by a blank page and how to begin a new project. Luckily, the pressure’s off!
The most important thing to keep in mind as you’re setting out on a new project is that you don’t have to keep it that way. Your first draft, especially, is just you feeling your way through the dark. In that lies your freedom. Pick a scene close to the planned beginning of your story and write.
Here are some ideas for starting:
In the middle of a conversation
In the middle of a car chase
In the middle of an arrest
In the middle of a heated argument
In the middle of an exchange of nefarious goods
In the middle of … anything. You get the drift?
Starting in the middle of things is one of the best and easiest ways to hook a reader in because they're curious. Who is this person? Why are they saying those things? What are they doing? Where are they going? These sorts of situations work to our natural human personalities to draw the reader in. Once you have them, don’t leave them hanging. The surest way to set someone off the work is to not give them something for their investment. Start in the middle of something, yes, but make sure you explain setting and a little bit of what’s going on through the eyes of your narrator within the first page (or second, if your first page starts ¾ of the way down). If you don’t clue them in soon, the reader will become frustrated, confused, and may quit the piece.
Can I start with description? Yes, as long as it’s well-written. Here’s a tip: Don’t worry about the quality. I subscribe most to the “start in the middle and figure it out later in the scene” method, but that doesn’t make it right for all situations. If it’s easier for you to start with a description, then do it. Just do it well. But not yet! You don’t have to have the perfect form as soon as you put ink to page, digitally or traditionally. That’s what the editing stage is for.
Very few published works are published with the same beginning as when they were written. This sounds horrific! What do you mean none of this angst and worry I’m pouring into these few lines won’t matter? Don’t worry, it’s great news. There’s no need to panic. Start wherever and however you want. Just get something down. Often times, no matter how well we think we have our story figured out, it will always show us new facets of itself as we’re writing. There may be a theme or a character arc you didn’t realize was as important as it became. What’s that phrase? Hindsight is always 20/20? The most glorious thing about writing in our current era is that nothing we write is set in stone (unless you’re doing some sort of magnificent historical testing, in which case, more power to you). We can write and rewrite and move things all we want.
As you go back once you’ve completed the work, you may decide to rework the first scene. This is totally acceptable and 99.9% expected. Work with what you have. Try rearranging it to see how the flow changes. Figure out what sort of a pace you want at the front of the book and tweak things to fit that pace. Your first pass isn’t going to be perfect. That comes later. Just get something on the page to start with.
(a side note: your “something” that you get on the page doesn’t have to be story or plot-related. Sometimes just talking about anything on the page helps alleviate the blank-page terrors. You can go back and remove the ramble when you’re done. Doing that will allow you to ease into the story, which may feel less abrupt and clunky for some writers.)
I’ve never been a home, only a hotel.
I have graffiti lining the walls of my own heart;
the warnings portrayed by those who have
stayed there before those ahead. Every last
piece of furniture inside has been upturned in
a desperate attempt to find where my own
pride is stationed. This room is a murder scene,
you know. My collarbones have reached up
and sliced through the jugular of those I’ve kissed.
I’ve dug my fingernails into the stone spines of
those who never deserved to be engraved with
my false passion. I’ve injected heartbreak into the
arms of those I was fully aware would become
And yet, I have the nerve to place flowers upon
the graves I dig for those I promised life. I have
the audacity to expect to be treated like a queen
when all I have known is the reign as a dictator.
I apologize to those I’ve given roses and left
thorns on the stems. I apologize for the promises,
and lack of following through. I’ve for too long
pressed my burdens to those who carry their
own. I never meant to become one myself.
And honestly, I apologize for what you’re about
to leap into.
I mentioned a long time ago that me and some friends have this document in which we wrote things we were told. Here’s a screenshot of the document (I just took it) in the part in which we write about the house I mentioned in London with the delivery guy. Check above: ‘last edit made on October 2014′. I did not edit this to fit the story. I could also check and show you when this exact part was written as Google Docs allows this.
check in the document ‘near the [blank]ge and [blank]. I’m only leaving that because I don’t want people to go near that place to snoop around, though I have a feeling they’re not there much lately (I think they have a house in Cheshire).
That is the article. I, again covered the word of the place they’re in and left the ‘ge’. I also covered a bunch of random words so if you google this the article doesn’t pop. Sorry, I’m paranoid. I searched and with the words I gave and the article didn’t pop, so it shouldn’t be an issue, but just in case, don’t be an asshole and don’t search. And definitely don’t go snooping around London to see if you can find their house??? I just like that they live together, I have no desire of stalking them whatsoever.
This is the article on google, as you can see, the person saw Harry and Louis in March 2014, and the article is from June 2014. I visited the article in February this year, because I didn’t find out until then it existed, someone else pointed it out to me and was like ‘what if they live there’. Then I noticed it was the exact area the delivery guy had described.
1. Even if you get published, you will get paid much, much less than you can imagine. A 75,000 word manuscript takes 2000+ hours and typically sells for around $5000. That’s not even closeto minimum wage, particularly when you consider the work you put in after getting published. If you plan on eating food more expensive than Kibbles and Bits, get a day job.
2. Most novelists don’t get their first novels published. According to a Tobias Buckell survey, only 35% of published authors broke out with their first novel. This shouldn’t be too surprising–look at what you were writing 2-3 years ago. You’ve gotten a lot better, right? You’ll probably feel the same way about what you’re writing now in 2-3 years. It may take a novel manuscript or two to develop professional-grade writing skills. (Keep practicing and you’ll get there!)
Edited on March 7 to add: I clearly missed that specific things were said, and that is not okay. Authors–all authors–are very much human and deserving of our respect and kindness. My apologies.
But I very much believe in the spirit of my original post … we’re in this together. We’re all people, real people, and collaborators. No matter what side of the desk you sit on.
* * *
In publishing-universe news, yesterday the Life in Publishing tumblr was shut down permanently, and the account deleted.
This anonymous blog by a (presumably female) publishing insider typically featured cheeky observations about the publishing world (including, yes, author behavior). Based on content, I’d always assumed its mastermind worked in children’s/young adult publishing.
The end came when an author successfully identified the person behind the blog and emailed—to her work address—an angry J’Accuse-letter threatening to reveal her to the public and to her employers. Among the things the accuser found condemnable: jokes about summer Fridays and gentle ribbing about blog tours. You know, really terrible stuff that no one should ever be forced to endure in gif form.
I got to read Life in Publishing’s final post—including the author’s letter to her—in the brief time it was still live. One of the comments, including many from supportive authors said, “this is why we can’t have nice things.”
This makes me super annoyed, but mostly it makes me sad. Life in Publishing’s posts had become infrequent, but when the blog was really active it was FUNNY. And pretty insightful. And, truly, quite gentle. We all know what mean gossip looks like, and this was not it.
We all—editors, authors, agents, publicists, marketers, salespeople, designers, etc.—work really, really hard. We work in a business that runs on talent and passion and sometimes very intense emotion. If you can’t have a sense of humor about all of this, well, you’re in for a pretty miserable ride.
There is no us/them. The greatest successes I have experienced are forged through collaboration, imbued with understanding, and maintain A SENSE OF HUMOR.
I’ll miss you Life in Publishing – whoever you were.
And those who have treated you bad in the past, don’t want to hear how strong you are now after everything they put you through. Putting you down or treating you second was not an act of theirs to make you stronger. But you will always show them that life is about experiences and experiences make you who you are today. And karma is the result of what you put back in the world, so make it count and make it right. And strength comes from your ability to let go and move on to a place where happiness and love can be shared with people that appreciate your time and your value your journey.
The more you keep on just living your own life, the more you will keep on proving them wrong.