The first sentence of a novel is the author’s first opportunity to grab you, to hook you, and keep you reading. Somewhere in my stacks of books that are now packed away for the summer, I have a lesson about first lines. The exercise lists all the options that E.B. White had for the first line of Charlotte’s Web. Do you know what the first line is? It’s the best first line ever.
Where is Papa going with that ax? (E.B. White)
I am working on a middle grade novel. One of my writing group friends suggested trying First Five Pages Workshop, an online critique group for MG and YA literature. I had to have my submission ready to email by noon on the first Saturday of the month. The formatting rules for the entry were very specific. I prepared a few days ahead and then hit send at 12:01 PM. I got in!
Turns out that was the easy part. There is no slacking in this group of authors. The expectation is that you will critique the others in the workshop as well. The writing is good. Finding something to say that is meaningful and helpful is hard.
The first sentence of my novel has changed a number of times.
My first draft began, “Sunshine flutters her feathers on my cheek.” But as I wrote the story, I soon discovered that things were amiss. And I needed to hook the reader with the idea that not everything was quite in order.
Draft #2: “I gather Sunshine from her nest by placing my cupped hands under her fluffy breast.” This is the one I submitted for First Five Pages. I got a comment that it was unclear that Sunshine is a chicken.
I completely rewrote the first sentence to “In the quiet of the morning, before the sun rises, before the barges move down the bayou, even before the St. Martinville, Louisiana public school bus drives down True Friend Road, I usually find a miracle waiting for me in the chicken coop.”
I liked the craft of three going on here and that it has a strong sense of place. I put it on the Facebook page for First Five Pages and got some great comments. “I like it. It sets a mood and tone and hints at trouble brewing with the little word, usually. I did stumble a bit on the town and state name. I’m not sure if you need those specifically right now vs. just saying the public school bus. The bayou gives us an idea that you’re in the south. Great job!”
This commenter suggested the word rumble to describe the bus going down the street.
The current version: “In the quiet of the morning, before the sun rises, before the barges move down the bayou, even before the school bus rumbles down True Friend Road, I usually find a miracle waiting for me in the chicken coop.”
What a process! I don’t think I could do this writing thing without help. I need the advice and encouragement of writing partners and critics. To put my writing out there for all the world to see, I have to muster up a boatload of courage. But I am never disappointed. I often get frustrated and wallow in self-doubt. In fact when I thought about writing this post, my little monster told me that no one would want to read this. I told him to take a walk.