Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | October 5, 2011

The First Line by Merry Jones

The Author Chronicles gives a big virtual hug and thanks to Merry Jones for kicking off our Mystery Month with some words of wisdom about beginning a project.

To enter the contest to win a signed copy of her latest book Summer Session, simply leave a comment – just saying ‘hi’ is fine. Winner announced Monday!

THE FIRST LINE

by Merry Jones

The best way to start is to start.

Mrs. Kellen, my third grade teacher, said that. She said a lot of Things To Remember, but those words stuck with me.

So as I sit, trying to start a new suspense novel, I remember them. Start, I tell myself. Just do it.

After all, I’ve done the preparation. I know the story, generally. And a lot about the characters. I’ve researched topics related to the plot, including the location and time period, relevant laws, prices of food and bus rides, styles of clothing, even music that was popular then, in the early Sixties. I can picture the heroine, her struggles. Her ratted beehive hairstyle. Her bitten fingernails.

Still, I sit at the computer, staring at the blank white screen. Enough, I tell myself. Just begin. Write a line. Just one.

Fine, I agree. I’ll do it. How difficult can it be to write just one line? I put my hands on the keyboard. And I hesitate, thinking, unwilling to commit.

Because that’s the issue: First lines can be daunting. They can seem colossally important, as if the whole mystery that follows relies on them, the way a building relies on its foundation. As if you have to grab the reader with those first words, and if you don’t, you’ll never really have them.

I know, of course, that the first line is not in and of itself that crucial; it’s really just the introduction to the second line. I’ve written stories and articles and published some fifteen books. All of those pieces had first lines. Obviously, I can do this. And if I mess it up, I can always change it.

Even so, as I hold my hands on the keyboard, I feel a familiar anxiety. I want to get this first line right. It has to set the tone of tension, be suspenseful, pull the reader in. I envision my heroine living her life, clueless about the chaos ahead of her. She’s climbing onto a Septa bus, feeling the pinch of her panty girdle (she always wears one, like armor), unaware that I am about to drop in on her. But at which moment should I begin recording her experiences, actions, memories, thoughts? Should she be on that crowded bus, jostled as she contemplates murder? Should she be enduring the earlier violence that marred her? Should she be in the police station afterwards, witnessing chaotic arrests and overhearing victims giving their reports?

Where do we join her? What do we first see and hear? First impressions, for sure, are indelible. How do I choose?

Over the years, I’ve learned writers often begin too early and end up deleting three or four pages of unnecessary drivel that leads to the spot where the story really should begin. I know that stories don’t start at a “beginning;” they start in the middle somewhere. Like circles, stories have no defined starting points—the teller just starts them, filling in background where and when needed. So I should pick a point in the middle somewhere.

Maybe she’s getting ready to take revenge. Maybe the book should start when she’s about to pounce on her prey, without explaining why.

Or maybe she’s just finished with him. And is getting a hot fudge sundae to celebrate. Or, no–Not a sundae. She’s showering. Washing it off. Or no. Getting a makeover—Or maybe new shoes.

I sit here. Deciding. Not deciding. Knowing that sooner or later, arbitrarily, I’ll just begin. Because, despite all my planning, debating, doubt, indecisiveness and discussion, in the end, I know how to start. The best way is just to start.

Merry Jones is the author of SUMMER SESSION and its sequel, BEHIND THE WALLS (coming out in Feb, 2012) and a contributor to the short story anthology, LIAR LIAR, written by members of the Philadelphia Liars Club, which came out as both an ebook and trade paperback in September 2011. She has written the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS) as well as humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.) Jones is a member of the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and the Philadelphia Liars Club. Visit her at MerryJones.com.

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Responses

  1. Great post about the all-important first line and where to start- thanks for sharing.

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  2. stories start in the middle…so right you are. gita

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  3. Great advice!!

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  4. Outstanding blog, Merry!

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  5. Merry, thanks for the advice – much needed as I also start my 2nd suspense novel. The story is “written”…but that first line! You are right, just start…the rest will come. As we all know, those first lines and pages can get cut anyways 😉 Great post!

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  6. It’s rare that my first line remains my first line, but “you gotta start somewhere!”

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  7. Now I know why I haven’t written anything. I haven’t started! ;-D
    Thanks for the post.
    ann

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  8. Recalling a quote from our third grade teacher is very impressive Merry! I was given the same advice when writing my dissertation and find it helps in all sorts of situations. Hope to see you at the next reunion…

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  9. Wait, before you start, aren’t there some dishes you need to do or other chores? Better take care of that first. Plus, don’t forget the laundry. And how can you start writing when your pen drawer is such a mess?

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