Thursday, January 15, 2009

January's LA Westside Writers Schmooze - First Lines!

Over 35 schmoozers (not all pictured here) met on Wednesday night, January 14, 2009, (in a room with enough light for people but clearly not enough for my camera), to talk about, analyze, and have our own first lines read aloud!

The incredible Rita Crayon Huang and myself (Lee Wind) steered the maiden voyage of our captaining the schmooze with some wisdom of, err... others!

I shared this quote to start us out:

"There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas, of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence - an overwhelming determination to succeed."

-Sophy Burnham

I like this quote because it kind of sets up that even though we were talking about a lot of "answers" at the schmooze, there may be other ways that work for people, and there's no single way to do it correctly.

Then Rita shared some great overall stuff about FIRST LINES:

A first line is a promise to the reader about what kind of book this is going to be. Often you can figure out a LOT of things from just the first line (or three.) Things like:

Tone / Voice / Mood
Main Character —in most cases, though not all—
Intrigue – would you read on?
and even Theme

More on first lines (adapted from Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass):

Some first lines speak in a narrative voice that engages, talking to us directly as if we are already listening.
Others have buried in them a little question that is begging to be answered, that makes us wonder, "What does that mean?"
Others present a physical situation that is in some way vivid or arresting.
Mood setting is a weaker way to go.
A detail that is a bit out of the ordinary can set us wondering why this place is different.
Good first lines lead us into the world of the novel. Each has a little mystery or intrigue that makes us want to know more.

And more, from an article, “Killer First Lines” by Susan Sundwall,

A dynamic first line will set the tone for your entire piece. It doesn't always have to be an explosive line, but it should arrest your readers' attention and entice them to read on.

Like that looming front door, the first line brings your reader through a portal into the world you've created for them. That line greets them with a smile, a leer, a shout or perhaps an awful truth.

The power of recall – Readers love a memorable first line. Like a perfect song lyric, it enables instant transport to some other place and time where borders are fuzzily defined and possibilities are endless.

The first line imparts information that often touches us on a subliminal level.

Then Rita shared what's perhaps the most often-cited FANTASTIC first line:

"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

You may recognize this as the first line from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Take a look at all the information you can glean from it.

- Someone's child, Fern, is speaking.
- Curiosity and a touch of fear are expressed in her question
- There are at least three people present at the beginning of the story
- The story begins in the third person
- It's morning.

Words in Good Order
. . . So what has made the first line in Charlotte's Web memorable? . . . It may not seem so, but the actual arrangement of the words make a difference too. If we try some variations with the first six words we may find they lose some of their effectiveness.

"Why does Papa have the axe?"
"The sight of that axe worries me."
"It's a little early for Papa to be out with that axe."

. . . It could be that we lose the sense of motion or impending activity when the word "going" is omitted. Leave Papa out in the next variation and a crucial element goes missing; the presence of a perpetrator. And we lose some of the sense of urgency with the last, simple declarative sentence. None of the lines are grammatically faulty; they simply don't work as well.

Right away, he starts by threatening to tell a truth about life that not everyone would handle the same way. This is a hook that works for both grownups and children, no matter how aware you are of what’s coming.

Eric Drachman shared three earlier, very DIFFERENT drafts the author had written of this now-classic opening line, two of which had been written by hand and transcribed by a librarian. It was fascinating to see how many different ways you could start the same story, and yet how much better the one in the final book was!

Then we READ and discussed some real world first lines, trying to see which of the 7 points we could glean from just the first few words. Could we determine the Genre? Setting? Time? Tone? Main Character? Theme? And perhaps most important, was there a sense of intrigue? Did we want to read more?

Rita and I mixed and shared over 20 first lines of schmooze attendees, as well as about 8 first lines from published works. Everyone tried to figure out which was which, and by a show of hands, we voted on whether we'd want to read more.

If you want, you can play along at home with these published first lines. What can you figure out? Would you keep reading?

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macarani-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.

—Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo (MG, Newbery Honor). Candlewick Press, 2000

Pirates have green teeth—when they have any teeth at all.
I know about pirates, because one day, when I was at the beach building a sand castle and minding my own business, a pirate ship sailed into view. I knew what it was, because its flag had a skull and crossbones on it and because I could hear the pirates singing, “Hey, ho, blow the man down.”
They were a little off-key.

—How I Became A Pirate, Melinda Long. Ill. David Shannon. (PB) Harcourt Inc., 2003

The wolf tasted the babe's face with the tip of his tongue and pronounced her sweet, and the fox licked the back of her head to see if it was so. For the rest of her life, when this child grew into a faerie with bright eyes and a laugh as loud and unladylike as a crow's, that spot on her hair would never lie flat. And though she wouldn't remember the night the creatures had gathered round to look at her and taste and smell her, she would call those unruly hairs her foxlick, without knowing why.

- From "Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer" by Laini Taylor, G.P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin), 2007

Cowgirl Kate rode her horse, Cocoa, out to the pasture.
"It's time to herd cows," said Cowgirl Kate.
"I am thirsty," said Cocoa.

- From Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa, By Erica Silverman, ill. by Betsy Lewin

First of all, let me get something straight: This is a JOURNAL, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY told her to get one that didn’t say “diary” on it.
Great. All I need is for some jerk to catch me carrying this book around and get the wrong idea.
[Cartoon follows here, of a big boy punching a smaller boy and saying, “Sissy!”]

—Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney (MG, younger. Main character in 7th grade)
Amulet Books/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2007

I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

- Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer (YA, Little, Brown Young Readers, 2008)

Then, braving something NEW, Rita and I had everyone do a writing exercise. (Also from the Donald Maass workbook) For 5 silent minutes (okay, I actually got caught up in it and gave everyone 7 minutes!) people worked on this:

What is the intrigue factor in your opening line? What question does it pose, or what puzzle does it present? Write that down. If you can't answer that first question, try shortening your first line or try your second line for the lead spot. Or combine elements from your first paragraph into one short, super-charged sentence. Write your new first line down now.

Then we set goals. Rita and I urged everyone to set a goal for what you'd like to accomplish by next month's schmooze. Go ahead - you can do it now. It can be output (i.e., finish chapter 4) or input (write for 2 hours every week)
It can be craft or business... no matter what it is, try to set a goal - a realistic goal - for yourself and write it down.

We had everyone clump up in groups of 3 and share their goals with each other. (Share yours with a friend, or in the comments section below!) At the next meeting we'll group off again - in maybe different groups - and we'll let each other know how we did. Note: the motivational tool at work here is ACCOUNTABILITY, not humiliation - you won't have to announce to the whole schmooze whether you made it to 8 hours of writing or not - but you'll share and cheerlead with your small group.

And yes, Rita and I set goals as well...

And that was pretty much it. It was a great meeting, and our thanks to everyone for participating, bringing cookies and stuff to snack on, and most of all, for being brave enough to share your work - we all learned a lot!

See you next month, on February 11th, when we talk about CHARACTERS (details on the calendar, here!) Specifics on where and when the schmooze meets are here.




  1. Wow, Lee, this is incredible. I feel as though I were there, soaking up a wealth of information. Thanks for doing the work, and lending a whole lot of thought.
    -Monique Ruiz

  2. Lee, you and Rita did a great job taking the reins from Sara and Greg--fantastic first Schmooze! Thanks!


  3. What a great, encouraging, helpful group of people. I loved how everyone had so much feedback on the first lines we read, whether they were revealed to be published or "prepublished." And what amazing work people brought in!!

    Thanks, Lee, for sharing it all online--with links!!!

    :) Rita

  4. The early drafts that Eric brought in of E.B. White's Charlottle's Web were so awesome. I'll have some thoughts about those up on my blog this weekend . . .

  5. Fabulous recap, Lee. Wish I had been there!

  6. Thanks for the recap. It is great when you work too late to attend to get the skinny here. This is a great service.