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I Don't Care If the First Line Stinks


"One of the things I hate about writing essays is that I cannot play games to get one started -- or is that true?"

           Here's a wonderful thing, which has helped me get this one started: I was pacing in-and-out of my little kitchen into my "den" (that's what I call it) and back, listening to my coffee maker gurgle out another ten-cup pot, and sucking the powdered cheese off processed tortilla chips, when I thought of that line as a starting point for this essay. I immediately knew it was not a very good opening line for the essay I intend. Now here's the perfect irony: it not being a very good first line for this essay happens to make it a good first line for this essay.

           It is a rare first line, in any of my work, prose or poetry, that makes it as far as draft number three, at least in the pole position. That doesn't mean that the effort was not worth it. Hardly so. The rest is there because of the pioneering, if inadequate, first line. It may not be that the line is bad, just that it no longer is a good first one. It might end up down in the paragraph -- some lucky sods do survive that way -- or down the page. Sometimes, though, the line is bad, was bad, will never be good in any context. Yet, that which follows as written, follows as written, because of that original first line. So those words do not die a vain death. At the risk of romanticism, they are sacrificed for the good of the work.

           The first thing written is the beginning of the physical writing, obviously. It's usually, for me, the beginning of the exploration, at least the active exploration. Usually, I've previously had a vision, to some extent, of where I want to traverse; and, so I sit down and start heading into that land. Sometimes with a map, or a destination in mind, sometimes without. "With a map, or a destination" may mean many different things. I may have a very structured idea of what I want to achieve in the writing: a theme, or a plot outcome, or a very defined scenario (even if I am not exactly sure what will happen in that scenario). I may have a looser guide: an excellent title for a piece -- especially a poem, a general idea for a topic (such as I had for this essay), or, a vague sense of focusing on an emotion or on an attitude. "Without a map" seems pretty explanatory: I start writing with no idea where I am going. I often can't look back and report on how I got the "first lines" for such work, unless I have done something very deliberate. In those cases, I do what I've heard in another context as hitting a wall and making a left. Another way of looking at it is as finding clues in the underbrush I am cutting through. Usually it's done with some sort of a word game. A very good example is noted in the author's notes of my virtual chapbook Voices. for the story "Hanna's Trespass":

. . . To get started I played an alphabet game. I randomly wrote all the letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper. "D" was the first on the page, so I opened a big dictionary to the D section, arbitrarily picked a column and counted up an arbitrary number from the bottom of that column. I came upon the word "dewdrop," and thus got the first word of the story. . . . I went back to the game whenever I got hung up. The only rule I had was that during the first draft, I could not reject the word that resulted from the game, I had to make it work. In revision I was free to do whatever I wanted. . . .

           From "dewdrops" I came up with the first line: "Dewdrops were beaded on Hanna's sun glasses, half hidden in the lawn that was prime for another mow" (By-the-way: "Hanna" was also a game word). What followed needed to make sense in conjunction with that line and had to make sense of that line. I made every effort to create each sentence as one that made sense in following what was already written.

           I had no idea what I was going to write about when I sat down to "Hanna's Trespass." Even when I had written the first sentence, I still was on virgin land, even about exactly who the characters were. As I further state in the notes:

. . . I let it bring me in to it. I didn't know that Hanna and Charlie were siblings at first. I knew they weren't lovers, and I teased a suggestion that they were out of an impulse that such a suggestion would help introduce the intensity and intimacy of their relationship. I did know early that they had a deep connection. . . .

           All those story points occurred to me during the writing of the story. And, by the time I had Hanna in the hedge-grove cave, I knew both what the story was about and how it was going to end. By that point, I had developed my map. This is one of those rare times when the first line stayed, as it happens, though it was re-written slightly. To illustrate the former point -- the idea which does have a map -- I had a pretty defined idea for "Three Seconds in the Life of Two Young People Who Haven't Met." I knew almost everything about this one before I sat down to write it. I knew a considerable amount about both characters, including their names and much more that is not revealed in the prose. I knew exactly where it takes place and exactly when. I knew it was going to be a brief account of that specific brief period of time. I knew the wants and attitudes of both him and her. I knew I was going to employ poetic language. I had pretty much conceived the piece as it is now, before I wrote it.

           And, I cut the first line: "She thought he was the sexiest man alive." It is an unnecessary declaration, though it took me months to recognize that (the sentence was even re-written a few times before finally being cut). Yet, it was a pathway pointer to the next lines from the young woman's point of view:

"If she could touch him. A real touch. Not simply to reach across the barrier and grasp his upper arm for this brief, perfect, lovely moment, before he pulls away, smiling into her eyes so she knows he's not offended."
That is now the first line of the story, and more powerful as the opening than what was cut. But, those words would not be there if they had not been written on the heels of the words that were purged.

           I find that what I frequently am doing with the first line written, is telling myself what I am about to write about. Actually, it is quite often the first paragraph, or even the first page -- and I have been known to slash as much as the first page, when it becomes unnecessary to the what follows, which is the restatement in much better narrative of what has been cut. It's also the furthering of the ideas stated in what was cut. And, this point could be entirely another essay.

           So, as long as I sit down to get started, it really doesn't matter what I start with. No matter how awkward the first line is, it can take me to the well written stuff. This principle works for me for more than just the first lines of the work. It can apply to the first lines of a session for a draft already started. In that case all this material in this essay can be directed toward the first line of the twenty-fifth paragraph, of a draft where I had previously finished twenty-four paragraphs.

           My main point here is that it does not pay for me to be fixated on the first line. If it has to be excellent before I move on, I may never do so. I have found that I often need to write quite a bit of a work before I know what even will be an excellent first line. Because, sometimes the first line sets the tone for the rest, sometimes the rest sets the tone for the first line, at least from the perspective of the writing in progress. Rather than writing an excellent first line, I need to concentrate on writing an excellent piece of prose or excellent poem as the result of the first line written, then, do what must be done with that line, based on what has resulted. In other words, after it has gotten me started, it becomes fair game for editing just like any other part of the work.

           And then, of course, there's the last line of the work, which is as in danger of being cut as is the first. . . .

this essay first appeared on the "From K.L.'s Desk" page in January, 1999.

For the index of K.L.'s creative writing and essays at this site, click here.

© 1999 K.L.Storer, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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