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.