Sunday, September 17, 2017

First Lines

Since finishing my second book I have been stymied, trying to decide what to write about next. Finally, I decided to go back to the basics, relearning some of the things I learned while writing my first book. In that endeavor, I picked up a copy of Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. In it he encourages me to take a look at first lines, which he says probably didn’t become first lines until after a lot of revision.

This was certainly true for my own first line in Rude Awakening which begins “My mother kept secrets.” That sentence, and the entire paragraph that followed, didn’t come along until I was well into my final draft. But for my second book, Dear Elvis, a book written as a series of letters to Elvis and as a diatribe against death and dying, the first sentence was the first line I wrote.  

In order to start writing again, Roorbach’s book has advised me to go to the library to start collecting first lines and to decide whether or not they work. I’ll do that tomorrow. In the meantime, I don’t need a library to recall my favorite first line from my favorite book, A Tale of Two Cities, which begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …”  

According to my kindle, that book “has sold more copies than any other individual book in history.” More than two hundred million copies.” And, of course, that first sentence works, echoing the themes in the book like the contrast between London and Paris during the French Revolution and the contrast between the two main characters, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton; as well as the war going on in Carton’s heart.

Remembering it, I can’t help wondering how long it took Dickens to come up with that first line. How I would love to go back in time to ask him!