Saturday, 16 June 2012

Word Search

"He yanked the steel knobs of the tap and frantically scrubbed his blood-stained hands under the gush of cold water."

This is the first line of my novel. This is the big one, the opener, the selling point, the seductive temptress just waiting to lure an excitable and curious potential reader with a bit of cash in their pocket towards the till with a copy of my beautiful book lodged firmly in their hand. This line is the first glimpse of my pride and joy that said potential reader will see while flicking through the paperback section in their local bookshop (maybe even the bestseller section, imagine that?! No - stop daydreaming Sinead!) 

This line, in all it's glory, has taken three and a half years to write and yes folks, I'm STILL not happy with it! Don't panic either - I have written four chapters and the prologue of my book, not just this one line. I'm not a complete hopeless case!

I'd guess that I have re-written this line about 20 times and I'll probably have changed it again before the night is out. Every time I look at it I see something I could change, be it a grammar alteration or even an insertion of dialogue. It's quite annoying because I basically can't open up my novel without seeing that first line and sitting there for five minutes wondering how I should change it. And even when I leave it and continue writing the rest of the book, my mind always wanders back to that first line with a niggling feeling that reminds me that if my first line sucks, then no one will stick around and wait for me to prove how amazingly brilliant and creative the rest of the story is (Because my story is amazingly brilliant and creative, I promise. You'll stay around to find that out, won't you??).

The funny thing is that I don't ever see the need to change many other lines in the book. Normally when I'm on a roll with the writing I'll just write reams of stuff -  straight from the murky depths of my brain to the page without much editing in between. I hate editing paragraphs and chapters that I've already written so I usually tend to avoid it! But for some reason that elusive first line refuses to give me peace and like an addict, I eventually succumb to the cravings and get my fix...

My problem therefore is clearly a problem that I never thought I would have: I'm a perfectionist. Well, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to the first line of my book. Not so much after that. In fact, I'm not much of a perfectionist in any other area of my life. I've never been competitive: I never got the best exam results in class (my results were good - just not top of the class!). The boyfriend and I moved in together last year and it has taken us 18 months to get the front of the house completed. Because neither of us are perfectionists. We're both "Meh" people who graduated with honours from the school of "If it ain't broke don't fix it". Well maybe not honours, but I'm pretty sure we passed anyway...

Anyway, the point is that I don't understand why this one line constantly torments and bothers me. Every time I see that first line, it's almost like it's taunting - ridiculing me! Burning a hole in the screen of my lovely (new!) netbook! Sometimes it even puts me off writing, because I'll open up Microsoft Word, open up my novel document and spend so long staring furiously at that first line that I end up convinced that no one in the world will want to read the rest of my book after reading a first line like that. My God, I'm a perfectionist and neurotic. I'm finding a lot of things out about myself through this blog!

And then I wondered (I'm feeling very Carrie Bradsdhaw-esque write now, asking rhetorical questions aloud at my screen, as I tap away at the keyboard, mug of tea in my free hand!) if I will ever be happy with this line. Have I given it too much importance - maybe more than it's worth? The reality is that I cannot see myself ever having a "Eureka" moment with my first line (as I did with David in my last post!) and this unsettles me greatly. But should I be spending so much time on this line or should I just cut my losses, accept the line and the possibility that some day I'll be happy with it, move on with the rest of the book and pray that any potential agents/editors don't spend as long studying it as I have?

Is any writer ever really 100% happy with their finished (or unfinished) manuscript? Maybe the first line for me is similar to a sort of Achilles Tendon problem - it seems to be a weakness for me and maybe it'll never be amazing but if I can compensate with other areas, then on a whole it's not so bad. Maybe it's just about accepting the uncertain and imperfect nature of writing, taking a leap of faith and trusting myself (and my first line!).

On that note, I think I'm going to make more tea, take a deep breath, open up my novel on the netbook and start typing. And I will try my absolute hardest not to stare too much at that first line - but I can't make any promises!!


  1. hi, Sinead,

    Been there with first lines and it's horrible.

    I'm learning to follow Stephen King's advice in 'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft' and whacking on to the end before starting to tinker.

    Good luck.

  2. Thanks Sally!

    I've heard "On Writing" is meant to be very good for potential writers, i must grab myself a copy!

    I'll try to think less, write more!

    Thanks for the comment :)

  3. At its best writing is hard, and the first line of a novel is the hardest. I struggled with my own opening paragraph for almost a decade before I found one that sang to me. I've had others tell me they don't care for it much, but that opening let me find my writer's voice and so I am loyal to it.

    That said, experience has taught me to not spend too much time editing before you have a finished first draft. Fall into a pattern of pushing forward until you find the arc that leads to the story's natural ending. Then look over what you have created.

    What you see at that point will likely be a disheartening mess. As you write your skills grow, and old sentences you once felt proud of start to look puerile. Do not give up hope, because this is a good sign that you are improving. Read through what you wrote and find the core story arc, then begin editing to bring that arc into the forefront of every scene. Edit again. And Again.

    It is a long process to build your writing and editing skills, but one worth the effort. Good luck on your journey.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment - very thought provoking! You're right on so many levels and I know that I need to "let go" of my longing for the perfect first line!

      I'll try and take your advice! And I'm glad that you eventually found your perfect line! Who cares what anyone else thinks as long as you're happy with it? :)

  4. Sinead, I was seeking for the right words to motivate you and I can do no better than quote from Harlan Coben, one of my favourite writers...maybe you could try driving from Dublin to Newbridge via Galway???
    “It’s a corny cliché, but anything can stimulate an idea. The hard part is, recognizing which ideas will work and developing that idea into a workable story. An idea is not a plot. An idea is not a novel. Turning it into a story… that’s where the real work comes in...
    I don’t outline. I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo… but I’ll end up in California.”

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanks so much for the comment and do you know it's incredible but the first line of that quote "anything can stimulate an idea" - that's the whole premise for my next blog! I'm working on it now but I'm enthralled in a novel at the moment (We need to talk about kevin - its fab!) so my blog will be finished and posted as soon as I finish the book! :) I must use that line that you quoted, thanks so much for that!!

      I love that idea of just letting go and writing, I need to work harder on that. And as for driving from Dublin to Newbridge via Galway, I would love to do that, not sure if I'd have enough for the petrol every day though... :)

      Thanks again for the comment and reading the blog!