I decided it might be interesting to look at some of the first lines of my stories. I’m grabbing a half-dozen first lines from some of my recent publications. I’m only looking at stories that are online, so if people want to see how the first line relates to the rest of the story, they can.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at a half-dozen from some of my favorite stories.If this proves interesting (to me or readers), I may do more another time.
“Love Is Never Still” in Uncanny Magazine
“Through every moment of carving, I want her as one wants a woman.”
I’m happy with this–which is useful because I essentially just finished it (six months ago). The story begins as a retelling of the myth of Galatea, a statue who is wished to life when her sculptor falls in love. For people who are versed in Greek mythology, this should evoke Galatea as a possibility — carving, want, woman.
Voicewise, the formal language establishes the kind of narrative distance that characterizes the rest of the text. It also suggests a story that may not occur in our place and time, as indeed it doesn’t.
I often try to make my first lines like puzzles–they create a set-up, and then add a disjunctive element, so the reader begins with a small mystery they need to solve. In this sentence, the intended mystery is between “carving” and “woman.” They aren’t the same, but are being treated the same–why? (And for readers of Greek myths, the further question, “Is this a retelling of Galatea?”)
“Tea Time” in Lightspeed Magazine
“Begin at the beginning:”
I’m happy with this one, too. “Tea Time” is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, so beginning with a quote from Carroll seemed the right thing to do. Luckily, Carroll left this wonderful piece of low-hanging fruit.
Having “begin at the beginning” set apart as a phrase gives some signals, too. First, it suggests fairy tale language (once upon a time), although that’s not the only possibility for what it could be doing. Also, it suggests something unusual is going on between the narration and the text. It’s set aside; it has a colon after it which separates it from what follows. It sets the reader on notice to look for something which will explain it, whether that’s metafiction (which it is), or perhaps an interview format or dialogue (which it isn’t).
To the extent there’s a puzzle here, it seems to come from the question of how the phrase will relate to the story. Why a sentence fragment? Why is it set apart? Why does it need to be explicit that it begins at the beginning, when that’s usually the implicit case? It’s not a big mystery, but it’s there.
“Grand Jete” in Subterranean Magazine
“As dawn approached, the snow outside Mara’s window slowed, spiky white stars melting into streaks on the pane.”
Where most first lines work to move you quickly into the story, this one deliberately slows the reader down. The sentence is heavy with adjectives and phrases. It actually evokes the word “slowed” before adding a comma and slowing the reader further.
The story is about a young girl, slowly dying, in winter. The emotions in the story are often muted, and there’s a lot of drama, but it plays out over a long clock. It’s about those long moments that compose a tragedy, the ones that aren’t exciting, but you can’t avoid inhabiting. Grief is like that for me–a little plot, and a lot of aching, endless moments.
It also gets across that the story will be heavily influenced by nature–the snow. And a slow and desolate mood–snow, and even the snow is melting. Something hard and spiky and distinct is becoming only a streak. I’m not expecting readers to get any of that, but it’s the sort of thing that prepares me as I’m writing a story.
I don’t think this sentence has any mystery in it. It’s establishing imagery, mood, and pace, and while it isn’t splashy as a first line, I think it serves the story.
“Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” in Apex Magazine
“My cock is throbbing so I pull it out.”
I was going to omit the sexual ones from this entry, but I decided to pull this one in because I think I messed it up.
On the one hand, it’s short, urgent, and attention-grabbing. In terms of moving the reader rapidly to the next sentence, it’s likely to work. (If they are the kind of reader who isn’t put off by “cock” being in the first sentence. If they are that kind of reader, they’re likely to stop, and that’s good, because they probably wouldn’t enjoy the story. Establishing what kind of story you’re writing early on isn’t only good for you and the people who’ll like it, but good for the ones who want to get that hot potato out of their hands as quickly as possible, too.)
It also suits the story pretty well since the story is partially about the sexual aspect of this man’s hatred of his wife. The sentence and phrasing is off-putting and abrasively short, which goes with the point.
On the other hand, not long after I put this out, Haikosoru editor Nick Mamatas complained about the prevalence in horror stories of stories that begin describing male masturbation in negative terms. I think he’s right–I rarely see stories start with female masturbation, or with positive male masturbation. So, while I think this suited the story reasonably well, I would do something else if I were starting the project now. Masturbation is a good and useful thing; there’s no reason to associate it with jerks (pun actually not initially intended). I vaguely intend to write something in the future which would start with a positive depiction of male masturbation and/or female masturbation, but I have a lot of ideas while time insists on continuing to pass, so.
“What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” in The Dark Magazine
After the wedding, Ruth moved into the Victorian mansion on Jack’s vast, rural estate.
Although the story wasn’t published that long ago, I actually wrote it quite a bit before that. The line is okay, but not great.
First, looking back at the story, I can’t tell why Ruth is the main actor in this sentence. (Really, I have no idea why I made that choice.) Jack is the main character and it’s happening from his perspective. Why isn’t it “Jack took her to live in the Victorian mansion…?” That would be a better reflection of the point of view, and it would go with the character dynamics, since Jack is very excited to introduce Ruth to his life, and she in turn is content to follow.
It does give us setting details that are useful for the story. Victorian prepares the reader for an old-fashioned feel, while also making it clear the characters aren’t actually in the Victorian era. “Vast” and “rural” create an impression congenial to the isolation established later in the story. “Rural” also suggests a hint of the plant imagery that is important later.
There’s not really any mystery in the sentence. It just sets up the thing that happened at the beginning of the story — she moved to this place — and prepares to efficiently move on. That’s workable, but not particularly inspiring.
“The Girl Who Waited (for the Doctor to Get to His Point)” from Queers Dig Time Lords, reprinted on io9
It will surprise no one who has given the matter any deep consideration that, given the existence of an extremely powerful being who is documented to engage in time travel and have a predilection for messing about with human history, it follows that there would be many individuals – even possibly contemporary ones -who have had experience with the aforesaid entity.
This is a comic piece of non-fiction about the adventures I’ve had with the Guidance Counselor, a figure similar to but distinct from the BBC’s Doctor.
The labored language is meant to establish my character (cynical, academic) and the style of humor (wordy, dry). I think it’s a funny line, and it goes well with the story. It’s how the character (me) would start it.
However, it’s long and a slog to read. While the elaborate language might work later when the character is a bit more established, it’s a lot to deal with all at once in the beginning. The joke is buried.
It works a bit better in its original context, a compilation of essays about Doctor Who, where the reader is primed. They know there’s something about The Doctor in there; they just have to find it. For them, hopefully, the long paragraph works as a mystery–how does this relate to the doctor?–which leads them through the joke, and on from there. (Or not on from there if they are, e.g., annoyed by authorial insertion.) Without that, though, there’s no real guide for the reader about what to expect, or how to parse the joke, or why this is being written at all.
If I were rewriting the piece, I would add another sentence or paragraph ahead of this. A teasery sort of sentence/paragraph, I think–which I could then pull back from into the abstract voice.
Some sentences from some of my favorite stories tomorrow, and thoughts and conclusions after that.