Monday, July 15, 2013

12 Avoid Overworking Your First Line by Elizabeth Lenhard

We're excited to have Elizabeth Lenhard with us today. She's worked as a journalist and a critic, in addition to writing numerous novels under her own, name, a pseudonym, and as a ghost writer. Thanks for sharing your insight with us, Elizabeth!

Writing To Your First Line
by Elizabeth Lenhard

As it turns out, I’m not very introspective about how I begin a book.

If I have rules, rituals, or a process for launching a novel, I haven’t pondered them long enough to identify them. This is probably a consequence of the way I’ve made my living since the age of 21. First I wrote one article every day (at least) as a features reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After a few years of that, I became a children’s novelist for hire. I wrote media tie-ins, movie novelizations, choose-your-own-adventure books, you name it.

Even though I’ve written a few books with hard covers, blurbs, ARCs, and all that, I still write work-for-hire books. I love them and not just because I get a contract and a check at the beginning of the process. I find that writing inside a box—and with a tight deadline—can be a surprisingly rich creative experience. It’s all the more pleasant when I don’t have time to agonize over my opening line. Overworking your opening is like overworking your dough when baking. The result is gummy and heavy. So I try not to think too hard about it.

That said, I do rewrite that first line, paragraph, or passage dozens of times. I just do it fast. If I could, I’d skip it altogether and come back later, but I’m not one of those writers who can skip ahead. If the beginning isn’t right, I have no launchpad; nowhere to go.

Here’s the maddening thing about that: I don’t discover the stuff I need to write a great beginning until I’m deeper into the book. I outline my plots, but the voice and tone and emotions and essence of a book? I discover those as I write.

Yet all those things really need to be there from word one.

Rock and a hard place? Oh, yeah.

So here’s what I remind myself when I’m tapping out beginning after beginning after beginning: I’m not writing the first line. I’m writing to the first line, and then, to the rest of the book. With each attempt, I’m not just trying on different voices, different words, different rhythms. I’m figuring out who my characters are. I’m learning about the story that I’m really telling.

So by the time I’ve gotten that beginning down, I know—in my bones—what I’m doing. I know where the story is going and I know (well, for the most part) how it’s going to get there.

Before I start and restart, again and again and again, I don’t. It’s as simple as that.

First lines. . .

Some of my favorite first lines are simple, almost to the point of being blunt. But they are loaded. Like, “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” (Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons) Or, “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” (Holes by Louis Sachar) These are pure hook. The first line of the first Betsy-Tacy book by Maud Hart Lovelace is like this as well, but in an incredibly sweet way: “It was difficult, later, to think of a time when Betsy and Tacy had not been friends.”

But then sometimes, a first line that’s full of exposition will come along and surprise me. I love this one from the short story “Sentimental Memory” by Laurie Colwin: “When I arrived in Inverness, Scotland, one freezing March, I had it in mind to tell anyone who asked that I was on a photographic assignment. I had the cameras to prove it.” Irresistible.

I couldn’t choose which approach I like best. That’s why I’ve written both kinds of first lines myself—the simple and the saturated. All were, I hope, fully loaded.

About the Author

Elizabeth Lenhard is the author of more than fifty books for teens and children. Her most recent releases are Sixteenth Summer and Fifteenth Summer, which were written under the pseudonym Michelle Dalton. She's also the author of the Chicks With Sticks trilogy. Elizabeth lives in Decatur, Georgia with her husband and two daughters.

Check out Elizabeth's website
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter

About the Book

Love blossoms by the lake in this sweet summer romance, in the tradition of Seventeeth Summer and Sixteenth Summer.

Chelsea isn’t looking forward to her summer at the lake. It’s the first time her family has been there since her grandmother died, and she can’t break out of her funk. But her summer takes a turn for the better when she meets a boy who works in the bookstore. Josh is cute, sweet, funny…and best of all, seems to like her as much as she likes him. As the days pass by in a blur of boat rides, picnics, and stolen kisses, she can’t believe how lucky she is. No one has ever made her feel so special, or so beautiful.

But Chelsea knows her days with Josh are numbered. She’ll be heading home at the end of the summer—and he’ll be staying behind. Will this be Chelsea’s summer of love? Or will it be the summer of her broken heart?

Purchase Fifteenth Summer on Amazon
View Fifteenth Summer on Goodreads


  1. Sounds like a great book!

    I'm always impressed with those short sweet and simple first lines that pack a punch - like Bradbury's It was a pleasure to burn. Love it. One of these days maybe I'll get one of my own I love just as much :)

    1. I have YET to be able to come up with a first sentence I love. Someday. :) And that line from Bradbury? Genius. So encapsulating.

  2. I never really though much about what goes into the making of a first line, but it's often what hooks me into a book just as much as the first chapter in its entirety. I love the example first lines that you listed. They're beautiful and make me want to read the books, including Holes, which I haven't read in ages!

    Thanks for the lovely post.

    1. I agree. Her choices are fabulous. And they are all full of VOICE. I think that's the thing i'm always missing in my first lines. Hmmh. Epiphany anyone? :)

  3. I feel the same. If I don't get that first sentence and paragraph just right, something feels off when I write.

    1. You're writing in first person, right? Voice. I'm telling you. And I finally realized with this last book that I love close third. My sweet spot. The conversations here are really making me sit up and think!

  4. Interesting, useful post. Thanks.

  5. Ha, I also write best when I write fast. Otherwise I overthink the soul out of the story.

    1. Do you fast draft, Lynda? So awesome. I always start off thinking I will, get to the middle of the book and realize that I need to slow the heck way down. :)

  6. First and foremost, thank you for the wonderful post, Elizabeth! I love the thought of the first sentence as a launchpad. That's it exactly. I need to spend more time on mine :)

  7. I adore Fist Lines and when I do school visits I talk about First Lines/paragraphs and Hooks with the kids and read some to them from actual books and we talk about *how* that line hooked them. It's a really fun part of my presentation and the kids love it.

    Finding that *right* First Line in my own work takes time and a lot of thought, but it's a great feeling to find a good one.

  8. Okay, will you please change that word Fist to First, please, in my post! Sheesh!!! Can't get my First Words right!


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