The Concept of Pressure

There was a First Line Grabber contest on MissSnark’s blog in the middle of last month. When I first saw this, I was super excited about it. How much fun would this be, right? But then the bot entries posted, and I saw how incredibly difficult it is to judge an entire chapter, and sometimes the entire story, based on the opening line.

Now, out of the thousands of books I’ve read over the years, I remember ONE first line. And that would be the opening line to LITTLE WOMEN: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

Is LITTLE WOMEN my favorite book? I love it, but no. Can I remember the first line of my favorite book? Heck no. I remember other lines and description and dialogue and can basically act it out for you start to finish, but the opening line? No clue.

I won a spot in the contest, and I’ll share that line a little later, but as I read through some of comments, it was amazing the kind of assumptions people made about the stories based on the opening line. Things like, “I feel like the entire story is going to be a flashback, and I hate that,” and “Who is this person and why should I care that they can’t breathe?” Even such fun comments as, “I have no idea what’s going on.”

It’s the first freaking line!

Are writers supposed to grab you and explain everything and make you like AND care about the MC from the first sentence?! What kind of madness is that?

My favorite comment was on mine and went something like, “If I was sitting down to read this book, nothing about this first line would stop me. That said, out of context…” and thus the reasoning for saying “NO, this isn’t grabby” followed, which I don’t remember. But I started thinking…why do we put this kind of pressure on ourselves? That comment right there was proof that people don’t really stop reading after one line. I know I would never stop reading after one line, and it’s a terrible thought that there might be an agent or editor out there who would. After a page? Yeah, of course. After a paragraph or two, maybe, sometimes it’s just that bad, but one sentence?

I couldn’t help but wonder about the people who had not a single YES on their entry; I only had a few myself. I wonder if they changed their sentences. I wonder if they rewrote their stories. Most of all, I wonder how helpful this is at the end of the day. So the first line isn’t fabulous. Does that mean the entire first page sucks? Does that mean the concept sucks? Does this even mean that a brand new opening line is in order? Of course not! I feel stressed just thinking about the pressure of trying to capture someone’s interest and make them love my MC from the first line. Like, can’t I have a few paragraphs at least?

All this got me thinking about the pressure we put on ourselves to be great. No scratch that: perfect. And this pressure is exactly why I wanted to stab my story in the face a few weeks ago, not because of this contest, I was having back story issues, and I thought if I was chosen, getting feedback on my first sentence would help. When I read what I have of my story so far, I love it so much. But when I send stuff out, my opinion doesn’t matter anymore. I know all this pressure I put on myself is bad for my brain (it’s so fragile, y’all!), but I am so tired of failing all the time.

Hence the pressure. And contests like this become even more appealing because we start scrutinizing our stuff into dust, like one line is going to be the difference between reaching our dreams and living in our cars. The pressure makes us crazy, folks. And then writing isn’t fun anymore. Sure this contest for great for the awesome lines people loved. But what about everyone else? Should they just drop everything until their opening lines are perfect? What about them?

Of course this made me scrutinize ALL my opening lines for this story, the first of which was this: Sometimes I think I see her there, floating in the water, still, her hair darkened by death. 

After driving myself crazy over the first chapter in general and getting some help, the new opening line was this: The dreams started the week before she died, followed almost immediately by visions so powerful they shook me.

After having gotten more feedback because I still couldn’t move on from the mess I had as an opening, the current first line is this: The ocean is restless tonight—waiting for another sacrifice. 

Now, I’m tempted to over analyze the new first line, after all, I like the first one better. And that line is still is the story verbatim, I just had to push it back to make things work. But yeah, when I asked my MC where to start the story because we had to back up some, she brought me to this. So I wrote it and moved on. But I still can’t help but wonder how these other two lines would have fared in the contest. Would people have liked them? Would I had changed them if they didn’t?

I don’t think I would have. Because I wasn’t changing that second line just because most people hated it. (And they did hate it.) Not everyone hated it. I didn’t hate it, though I do see how it confused some people. Nonetheless, the line changed when my opening changed again, naturally. And honestly, I was fine until I started thinking that there was something horribly wrong with my story because so many people voted NO on my line being grabby. But then I remembered: it’s okay. I can’t be great at everything.

So, I guess my point is: Let’s not do this to ourselves. Contests like that should be fun, not give us a reason to jump into a pressure cooker. If your first line isn’t the most amazing thing, it’s okay. People will keep reading anyway. And I know this because I keep reading. And I think sometimes we forget that we’re readers, too.

20 Responses to The Concept of Pressure

  1. So true! I actually got into one of these contests a few months ago (but it was for the first 250 words), and argh! The comments made me doubt a project I’d already been querying for a while. Things I’d never even thought of after having about 7 different readers tell me it was fine, because of that pressure to cram everything into the opening.

    I stopped entering contests for a while because I was so sick of the pressure, not to mention the constant contradictory feedback which had me beating my head against a wall (not literally :P)! And then I won a critique from an agent a few weeks ago for a different project, and they weren’t a fan of my opening (in media res). So, more rewriting for me! But you’re absolutely right that the first line isn’t going to stop people reading on. Even with an AMAZING opening line, it’s impossible to please everyone!

    • First page contests do make you feel like everything needs to be right there ASAP! If people want to know more than that’s the whole point. We want people to want to know so read and find out. ^_^

      The winners of the first line got to post their first paragraphs, and some of them didn’t live up to the hype, so you never know. Lol!

  2. I’m HUGE on first lines. I seriously spent a whole two years obsessing over them. I’ve come to the conclusion that a great first line does 1 things: makes you ask a question. If you’re going the extra mile it will also establish the tense and viewpoint, introduce the MC, and give us a glimpse of the setting–be it emotional or physical. In that regard, I LOVE your first line. Instant question. Beautiful imagery. Perspective established.

    • Oh my gosh, thank you! ^_^
      I’ve really never thought to look at them that way. I can kinda see now why the amazing first lines were so good. I usually like my first line. And I will admit, I won’t start drafting until I do. Lol! It really does help me get started on the right foot. 🙂

  3. First line pressure?
    If the first line has to be perfect, what about the rest of the story….?
    Pressure upon pressure upon pressure… ad nauseam…?
    What about just enjoying the writing process and leaving the nitpicking for after?

    • Right?! Like really, I was stuck on my first chapter for a month! It just wasn’t fun anymore. I finally just had to go, “screw it!” and move on. Not to mention, it’s a lot more fun to nitpick when you’re done. ^_^

  4. I got into first line neurosis for a while (this was after I read a writing craft book). Then I posted my first three lines into a thread on AW and they hated them (of course, I’ve scrapped those lines now anyway). But I usually give anything I read at least a page or a chapter or whatever to grab me, orient me, introduce me to the character, etc. Sure, a grabby first line is great, but it can’t show us everything about the story or else why should I read the rest of it?

    • Yeah, it’s a “really nice to have, but not essential” kind of thing. I can’t ever remember thinking, “WOW, what a great opening line!” I could have, but I don’t remember. Lol! Part of the problem I had with my first chapter was trying too hard to make it exciting right away. And that’s not always the best way to open a story.

  5. This was ahh-maze-inggg. I have to agree with you. I definitely DON’T stop reading after the first line. I go on and on until I’m like “ugh, no” or “omg, yessss!!” I shared with you my first line last night, and I’m glad you thought it was good, but I’m still not completely in love with it, however, i will not kill myself over it. This is such a great post, and I think more people need to read this.

    • Thank you! ^_^
      Definitely don’t beat yourself up over it. It IS good. It makes me want to read the next sentence, which is the whole purpose of the first line, to not turn us off the next. 🙂

  6. My gosh. The first line of a novel. It’s a first impression, but like with most people it isn’t what stays in the long run. It’s not the first action or sentence someone says when you first meet them. it’s the entire first experience that stays with you. I love my best friend to bits, but for the life of me I can’t remember the first thing we talked about. Sure, it must have been something good enough. I see the first line in a book the same. It’s the relationship that I build with the book that matters, not the first line. Sure a first line may catch someone’s attention. But just like with a person, I’m not going to write someone off from a bad first action and I’m not going to write some one off for a bad first line. Unless of course, it is offensive to my core.

    Most first lines, like most first meetings, are just that the first. I don’t expect to be blown away because then my expectations are too high.

    • Yes! The first line has to be pretty bad to get me to stop reading. I can’t think of a single line from that contest that I wouldn’t have kept reading at least through first paragraph, if it were there. And you’re right, I work retail so the first time I meet someone, they have to be pretty awful to leave a lasting negative impression or pretty awesome to leave a good one. Some first meetings with friends are definitely more memorable than others.

  7. I can’t believe your first line got a “no” vote for grabbiness–it is SO grabby! I immediately felt like, “Wait, why is this girl in the ocean? Why is she dead? Who is she? What circumstances happened that allowed the narrator to witness this poor girl’s body floating there?” Etc., etc. The point is, you gave me several reasons to want to keep on reading.

    The first line of my book is “To think it all started with a rat.” When I shared it at a writer’s conference, there was no argument about whether it was grabby or not (everyone present felt it was), but I did have all sorts of doubts, because they all thought it was going to be a book about some killer rats or something. Given that my book has nothing to do with rodents, I’m thinking, “Great, I have to overhaul my first line.” Ultimately I couldn’t do it, so now I’ve decided that the back of the cover will have to give enough clues to the reader about the true story line of the book. Or my readers will have to have the reading-stamina to get past the first eight words.

    • I like your first line, too! I didn’t get a thriller vibe or anything like that. To me it sounds like a story that’s going to be hilarious with a side of adventure, and the main character’s life will change all because of one little rat. At least that’s what I get. ^_^ It sounds like a lot of fun. I’m so glad you’re not changing it. People will definitely know what to expect from the blurb.

      Also, thank you. ^_^

  8. True. I’d almost bought into that hype last year, worrying about my first line and how un-grabby it was. Then I wrote one that my CP liked, but later had to move that chapter to the second, and now I have an un-grabby first line again. Perhaps in the future I’ll come up with something, but for now, I’m focused on making the story as a whole the best I can.
    Like you, I can’t remember the first line of my favorite novels. But I remember their plots, and the effect they had on me.

    • Right! As long as the story as a whole is good, that’s all that matters. I’ve never really thought about this until the contest. I suppose that’s a good thing. I just aim for the line that gets the story started. If it does that, I move on. Hopefully this experience won’t make me hypersensitive about it in the future!

  9. Although the first line might be important, it doesn’t make or break a story. I really don’t know of anyone who has laid down or bought a book based on that first sentence. The first paragraph or pages is a totally different story. I discussed this with my daughter a couple of days ago and quoted my favorite first line from The Graveyard Book. My daughter thought it was totally stupid, but after reading the first few paragraphs, was totally drawn in.

    • Yeah! And I’ve had the opposite happen, where the opening paragraph is so good and then it just fizzles. You’re right, it’s definitely not the end all. What comes after that first line is more important. ^_^

Hi! ^_^