Invitation to Read

I spent last week judging a first sentence contest on my friend’s blog, The Story Teller’s Scroll. There were many interesting entries. I was curious about what followed some of those first lines. It made me realize how obsessed writers have become about ‘hooking’ an editor’s attention.

At writer’s conferences, we used to discuss how important the first chapter was. We outlined what we had to accomplish within those first precious pages. Just when we thought we had it down, we heard about ‘first pages.’

Yes, it was no longer the first chapter. The slush pile was sky high and editors had to be engaged by the end of the first page. Start with action. Don’t have any backstory. Start at a decisive moment. We rewrote first pages to perfection only to find by the time we had finished, the window of opportunity had shrunk even more—to the first paragraph and then to the first sentence.

Auditions have been trimmed from a chapter to a line. What pressure we now put on that first poor sentence. It has to convey your voice, the mood of the story, your character’s voice, something exciting or interesting, a hook, foreshadowing, anything and everything. As obedient writers, we try to cram it all in.

In some of the entries I judged, sentences staggered under the burden placed upon them. Clauses were tacked at the beginnings and endings. Commas ruled the day. Sentences strained to the breaking point, as they tried to accommodate a paragraph’s worth of information. Many were perfectly good sentences when they started out. I trimmed them and removed the cluttering clauses. Underneath I found strong, solid sentences that invited me to read on. ‘Read on,’ they said. ‘There are other sentences to follow.’

Other openings dumped me right in the middle of the story. I had no bearings. I felt as if I had been thrown in a pool and told to sink or swim. Did I find that interesting? I’d like to say I did, but actually, it had the opposite effect. I wanted to pull back and orient myself, instead of plunging ahead.

So what is a writer to do? I opened two of my favorite books tonight and read the first sentences.

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’ —Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

The sentences seem plain, unassuming. They don’t leap off the page and grab you by the throat. But they do invite you to read on. Curl up with these comfortable words. There is more to come.

Perhaps that is what we writers need to remember. Our first sentence shouldn’t be a blaring TV commercial or a high-pressure salesman. Our first sentence is an invitation. Come in dear reader; spend time in my world.



About roxanne werner

Mild mannered mom by day, free time lost in my imagination. My journey started with Santa. Every year I raced to the Christmas tree and searched until I found the special present, the heavy one, signed 'love Santa'--a book. I would curl up and start reading, often not coming up for air until the story was done. As an adult I still look for the one special present under my tree, signed from Santa. It's the heavy one I open first--a new book, a new world to explore. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey but reading let me travel through space and time. I visited the future with H.G. Wells, Middle Earth with J.R.R.Tolkien. I had the best of companions, characters who made me laugh, cry, and catch my breath. My sixth grade teacher opened up another world for me. Each week we were assigned to write a story. I had made up stories in my head before, but never attempted to write them down. It was the best homework I ever had. I couldn't wait to put down my ideas and create characters of my own. I was hooked on writing. Time passed and though I remained an avid reader, writing was put aside. I had a family to raise and a full time job. Now that my son is going to be sixteen, I'm getting ready to retire my 'mom hat.' Two years ago I decided to pursue writing as more than a hobby. I packed up my imagination, a pen, my PC, mustered up my courage, and began a new journey. It's been filled with ups and downs, but I won't ever go back. Like Frodo, I've learned there's a big wide world out there. Once you take one step out of your door, you are swept up and taken for an adventure. It's scary and wonderful. I've made great friends and learned so much. If I'm brave and don't give up, one day a child will pick up a heavy present under their tree and open it to find one of my stories.
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3 Responses to Invitation to Read

  1. David R. Landis says:

    Thanks for reminding me of the importance of the first words. Like anything, first impressions matter whether we’re talking about appearance or words. We are all looking for that opening that makes the reader want more.

  2. Jo-Ann Carson says:

    I am struggling with exaggeration of the importance of the “the hook” being in the first sentence. It would be nice, but it isn’t always possible, and it can really bend your writing.

  3. Sheila Kelly Welch says:

    After many years of reading and writing, I think I prefer a slower pace than what has become the fashion of today. Several of my published books actually begin with my main character sitting! Okay, I just checked. All of my five novels have very different first lines, but the characters are sitting. Where are they sitting? In a school bus, in a car, on an old board in a vacant lot, on a chair in a hospital waiting room, and on a chair (as the character writes in her journal).

    Here are a few first lines from these books:
    “The sun’s stuck,” said April.
    I don’t believe in ghosts.
    T.J. sits, his head leaning to one side.

    So — my new novel starts with the character standing — sort of. She’s standing in the prologue but sitting in bed in chapter one.

    Just saying . . .

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