Well, here’s why I write like that.
Now this takes a lot for a writer to reveal, because no writer ever wants you to read their dreadful first drafts, so I’m going to start with the end result, which I think is pretty good. Here’s the opening line for
“The Burning Girl”:
No good comes from getting caught working on the Sabbath, even if my client’s a rancid whore infected by the devil.
But my first attempt looked like this (and I am cringing just at the thought of showing you this):
“Bess Partridge was delivering medicine for the king’s evil when she heard the commotion. “
Yes, it was that boring.
It still introduced the character in action, actually mentioning her name, but it was pretty obvious that it lacked flavour. I quickly realised no-one was going to want to read past that line. So I tried this version:
“Bess Goodwin was delivering a remedy for the ‘king’s evil’ when she heard the screams.”
Not much better is it? I changed her surname and the nature of the sound, but it was clear that 3rd person wasn’t going to work for me. So I changed it to 1st person, but as you’ll see it still sounded flat, even though I chose to change it from past tense to present tense:
“I am delivering a remedy for the ‘king’s evil’ when I hear the screams.”
There was just no drama, no danger, no humour, and it just didn’t sound like my feisty teenage 17th century heroine. And mentioning the ‘king’s evil’ left readers thinking ‘what’s she on about?’.
So I needed to give Bess an opinion, some attitude, and some risk. She’s a healer but she doesn’t have to like her clients, and in the 17th century being caught working on the Sabbath would put her in the stocks. I needed to get all these flavours into that first line.
Because a great opening line can be the difference between getting published and being left on the slush pile. I know because I get editors and publishers remarking on my opening lines, telling me how much they like them. I’m not trying to boast here, just demonstrate how crucial these first few words are. The History Press published my book “South West Secret Agents” because the commissioning editor Cate Ludlow thought it had the best opening line of any non-fiction book she’d ever read:
Maurice Southgate opened his eyes. He was in the water and the water was on fire.
So my opening line for “The Burning Girl” became “No good comes from getting caught working on the Sabbath, even if my client’s a rancid whore infected by the devil”, but I still wasn’t sure if this was the way to go. So I did some informal market research:
I posted the line on Twitter with the #1linewed hashtag – every Wednesday, writers share a sentence from their work in progress, on an agreed theme, and that week’s theme just happened to be ‘opening lines’. And I got a lot of great feedback and support, and that’s continued as I keep posting up lines every Wednesday, and liking others’ work.
And now, something as simple as an opening line has brought me nearly 1800 Twitter followers and over 4300 impressions a week. Not as much as some, but I’m still fairly new to fiction writing, so I’m pretty pleased with that.
So how do you decide what your opening line will be?
I’ll see you again tomorrow.
Lots of love, Laura xx